Lisa McDowell: Hospital Campus Farm Pioneer

Lisa McDowell, MS, RD, CSSD

Eleven years ago, Lisa McDowell's father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was a defining moment in her life and career. "Pancreatic cancer is extremely deadly and my dad's cancer had spread to some of his lymph nodes. After his surgery, he wanted to do everything he could to battle the diagnosis, and one area he looked to me for help with was nutrition," she says. The experience cemented McDowell's career path, making her more determined than ever to use nutrition in preventive ways. She is now director of nutrition at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., as well as Team Sports Nutritionist for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team and also a professional and Olympic Sports RD Consultant. Three years ago, McDowell was instrumental in launching the nation's first farm on a hospital campus, The Farm at St. Joe's.

Q: Tell us about your work and how it fulfills a need in your community.

A: Our large, teaching hospital is built on a 364-acre campus that used to be farmland. We returned 25 acres back to its original roots. We have constructed three 30-by-96-foot hoop houses, which allow us to grow fresh produce throughout the year. The produce is offered on our patient menu and is also incorporated into specials in our employee cafeteria and convenience store. We also hold a weekly farmers market in the hospital lobby where fresh produce is sold to patients, employees and visitors.  

Q: What inspired you to undertake this work or project?

A: As a clinical dietitian caring for patients, I see the complications associated with being overweight. We wanted our meals to demonstrate what a healthy meal looks like without the patient even realizing they are being educated. Our meal trays are beautiful — featuring lots of different colors — and they taste delicious.

Q: How has your work made a difference in your community?

A: The farm is a living laboratory where the community can visit, volunteer and learn about healthy food. The hospital is truly leading by example and pioneering new treatment strategies to improve recovery, prevent disease and treat obesity.

Q: Is there a particular anecdote or story that illustrates why this work is so important and how it has made a difference?

A: Our third hoop house is truly an inspiring story. We partnered with Eisenhower Center to construct the first accessible hoop house for neuro-rehabilitation. Patients who have suffered a traumatic brain injury can now participate in gardening as part of therapy. The hoop house is handicap accessible with plant beds that can be adjusted to the proper height for wheelchair patients.

We also have a pediatric weight management program that incorporates walking to the farm, harvesting vegetables and walking to the cooking studio to prepare a meal as part of the curriculum. Watching patients working in the hoop houses and on the farm is very inspiring.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your efforts?

A: Making a difference in how people view food. RDs have an extraordinary power to influence food-purchasing decisions and each recommendation we make should include careful thought. You shouldn’t need advanced degrees to navigate good food purchases. Choosing good food has become so complex that many patients don’t know where to begin. I would like our hospital to be the place where they can start the learning process while enjoying great food.

I am also very proud of the strong student experiences we offer. The farm provides additional opportunities to learn sustainable agriculture, education materials development, recipe sampling, farmers market participation and cooking lessons. Integrating clinical nutrition with farming and cooking has been very popular with our students.

Q: Looking ahead, how would you like to see your project develop or grow?

A: One day, we would like to maximize a compost program, reduce food waste, implement a healthy beverage campaign, purchase more than 50 percent of food from local suppliers in Michigan, and in the end, change the landscape of our fast food nation.

Watch this brief video about The Farm at St. Joe's:

Follow the farm's blog and follow Lisa McDowell on Twitter.

Food & Nutrition Magazine
Food & Nutrition Magazine publishes articles on food and diet trends, highlights of nutrition research and resources, updates on public health issues and policy initiatives related to nutrition, and explorations of the cultural and social factors that shape Americans’ diets and health.