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Rooftop garden feeds hospital patients, teaches students

Chef Guy Rouge, of restaurants Mirabelle and Mirabelle

Chef Guy Rouge, of restaurants Mirabelle and Mirabelle Tavern, hands out dishes he prepared to showcase local produce at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the "Stony Brook Heights" rooftop farm, a community garden on the roof of the hospital. (Sept. 10, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

Growing up in Queens, Michael Geddes, 22, said he didn’t know the first thing about farming, and in fact, had never planted anything in his life.

But last spring, a professor guided Geddes, a sustainability studies major at Stony Brook University, to the hospital’s rooftop farm, suggesting he take on a summer internship there.

Throughout the summer of manual labor and long hours, Geddes found a new passion.

“I didn’t think I would get into farming,” he said. “But I love it here.”

The farm is run by the Nutrition Division of the hospital’s Department of Family Medicine and manned by volunteers consisting of the staff, interns from the dietetic nutrition program and other students.

Though they first started building the farm last fall, the group held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and benefit Monday night to celebrate its official opening and the bounty of its first harvest, which has been enough that the hospital can now offer patients homegrown vegetables, like kale, eggplant and cabbage, in at least one meal nearly every day.

Leah Holbrook, the hospital’s public health initiative coordinator, said the farm is partially funded by a five-year grant from the Healthy Heart Program of the New York State Department of Health, which provided the hospital with $82,000 annually and ends in March 2014. The grant also enabled the hospital to build and oversee 10 community gardens in low-income neighborhoods around Long Island.

“This garden is unique in that all the other gardens are situated in communities and
this one is situated on the rooftop of Stony Brook hospital and the produce is actually integrated into patient menus,” she said.

An additional benefit of the rooftop farm, which they call “Stony Brook Heights,” is that it provides a hands-on learning opportunity for so much of the university and hospital community.

Iman Marghoob, a registered dietitian and the community garden coordinator, said the family nutrition department and the sustainability department have been able to work together to get their students involved, and other students from the university have also taken an interest.

“We’re trying to teach them — if they don’t already know — about the problems with food, whether it’s pesticide issues, transportation, the price of hauling food from outside areas,” she said. “So it’s a lot of learning going on at one time.”

Marghoob said the majority of the grant goes to the outside community gardens, and she and the rooftop farm volunteers have been continuously fundraising for their supplies.

On Monday, chefs from local restaurants showcased their talents with cooking demonstrations and food tastings at the rooftop farm, a book reading by Leeann Lavin, author of “Hamptons and Long Island Homegrown Cookbook,” and a produce auction led by Farmer Scott Chaskey, of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett.

About 50 people, including Stony Brook staff and students, attended the event, with a suggested donation of $75 to $100 for entry.

Holbrook said the money raised is to keep the rooftop farm going after the grant ends. She and Marghoob have also worked with members of each of the outside community gardens to fundraise for the future of their own gardens.

“Community gardening is becoming very important,” Holbrook said. “Especially as we learn the benefits of eating local produce both to prevent disease and optimize health, teaching people how to grow it themselves is really a skill that can’t be measured in terms of its importance.”

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