Boston Medical Center senior director of support services, David Maffeo, sparked this out-of-the-box idea to help curb food insecurity in the community.

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In 2001, Boston Medical Center opened its Preventive Food Pantry: a resource primary care providers could refer patients to with a prescription detailing their nutritional needs. The goal of the program is to get nutritious food into the hands of those who may not be able to afford it and, in turn, reduce rates of diseases like diabetes and heart disease. "Most of our patients come from an underserved population," says David Maffeo, senior director of support services. "Food insecurity is a major challenge." And while the move was a huge step in the right direction for the hospital, Maffeo wondered if more could be done. In a landmark 2016 meeting, Maffeo and Bob Biggio, senior vice president of facilities and support services, asked an out-of-the-box question: What if the hospital grew its own food—on the roof ? "A year later, we were planting our first seeds," Maffeo says.

portrait David Mafeo and Lindsay Allen in an urban garden
Credit: Adam DeTour

What They Did

Sprawling across 2,658 square feet, three stories up, BMC's rooftop farm produces more than 25 varieties of crops and houses three beehives to aid in pollination. From collards and chard to radishes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, bok choy and more, the farm supplies the hospital with 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of fresh produce during the brief Massachusetts growing season. More than half of the harvest goes to BMC's Preventive Food Pantry, which now serves more than 22,000 families annually. The rest of the produce is used in hospital meals and at the on-site teaching kitchen that offers free culinary classes for staff, patients and their families. This trio of services—the pantry, the farm and the teaching kitchen—form the hospital's "Nourishing Our Community" program.

Why It's Cool

Barbara Woods has received produce from BMC's pantry for over five years now, plus instruction on how to incorporate fruits and veggies into her diet. "The freshness is what I love about it," she says. "I'm much happier—and I've lost weight." Beyond all the boons to patients, the rooftop farm is a model for other hospitals that want to help alleviate patient food insecurity and encourage healthy eating. Lindsay Allen, the farm's manager, has advised many hospitals in the Greater Boston area to date, as well as facilities as far away as Europe. "That's the greatest joy for me," Maffeo says. "All the hospital farms across the country and world that are popping up."

This article first appeared in EatingWell, June 2021.