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Caring for vegtable gardens and cooking benefits patients at Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care

What’s old is new again – it’s an idiom you wouldn’t expect to be true in health care. But it is. At Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care in Central Elgin, a program for patients is reminiscent of pioneering practices from more than 70 years ago. 

In the late 1940s the former mental health facility then known as The Ontario Hospital, St. Thomas, had earned a wide-spread reputation as “the most advanced in the dominion” for many innovative approaches that supported patient health and well-being. 

One unique approach was the establishment of a 463 acre farm, which provided patients with the opportunity to participate in food production for the entire hospital. Medical pioneers of this self-sustaining facility recognized back then that involving patients in productive and meaningful activity was instrumental to recovery. 

Therapeutic powers of gardening and cooking

people gardening at the Southwest CentreToday, gardening and growing food is once again bearing fruit – literally and figuratively -   a reminder that the legacy of excellence in mental health care in Elgin County has deep roots.

In spring 2015, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) staff at Southwest Centre teamed up with Therapeutic Recreation to develop a gardening and cooking program for patients, providing them with the opportunity to get involved and develop skills they would need for returning to life in the community. 

Pictured: Skip, right, and Kevin, two of the patients who participated in the gardening and cooking program at Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care, show off the beautiful carrots and potatoes yielded from the planter boxes.

With the help of staff, patients built and then planted 20 gardening boxes in the interior courtyard at Southwest Centre with an array of fruits and vegetables, and a few varieties of flowers.

"We planted tomatoes, carrots, spinach, zucchini, lettuce, potatoes and green peppers…just to name a few,” says Amy Harrison with FNS who helped to launch the program. Over the course of the spring, summer and fall, patients reaped the rewards of their efforts.

Pictured: Southwest Centre staff members Amy Bennett and Amy Harrison look on as Kevin and Skip harvest fresh vegetables from one of the gardening boxes they planted at Southwest Centre.

Southwest gardening

"We wanted to encourage healthy eating habits for patients and also teach them skills they could continue to use upon discharge,” added Amy Bennett, therapeutic recreation specialist, noting that the program gave patients first-hand experience with planting, maintaining, and harvesting the gardens and ultimately preparing their own fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It was great to see them out there almost every day, weeding and watering and checking on the produce…they really got involved and took initiative.”

Some of the planted boxes were designated as “snacking gardens” so patients could wander outside and pick a healthy treat to eat whenever they wished, such as cherry tomatoes, snap peas and strawberries. 

“We were excited to see how successful those snacking gardens were in increasing vegetable consumption…especially with some of our patients who didn’t normally eat their veggies,” laughed Amy Harrison.  

The fruits of their labour

The cooking and nutrition portion of the program then taught them how use those ingredients to make wholesome meals.

One highlight Amy Bennett recalls was when the patients ate the very first salad they made from the garden and a patient remarked, ‘why would anyone go to a fast food restaurant and pay nine dollars for a salad that’s not even fresh?’

“It was the best salad they ever had,” adds Amy Harrison.

The program was launched on the Forensic Rehabilitation Unit where 10 patients were involved either through gardening, joining a cooking class, or both. The goal is now to expand the program to other inpatient units at Southwest Centre.

Skip is a patient who thoroughly enjoyed the program and the many things it taught him. 

“I had always wanted to learn how to plant a garden,” he said in the fall as he dug out a batch of fresh carrots. “Now I know how.” 

 Skip also revelled in learning how to cook and bake and, of course, in tasting the recipes. “We made salsa, and zucchini bread, baked French fries and some delicious salads…learning to prepare the food from scratch was a whole new experience for me.”

Kevin, now an outreach patient, also benefitted from the program. 

“Being in hospital for more than five years meant I missed out on the grocery shopping experience for a long time…I had no idea the prices of what things cost,” says Kevin. “Growing my own garden means I’ll pay less for produce at the grocery store, which will help keep my expenses down.”

 “I really enjoyed the whole process,” he adds. “I looked forward to it every day.”

Cooking session recipes

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