“The most important thing to me is that we connect the dots when people are in the farm,” Johnson said. “We want them to understand the importance of food to their health and the side benefits of stress management. People who work here, they’re stressed and sometimes rarely leave their desks. If they can pull a few weeds on a break, it’s huge for them.”
Leftover crops head to charity groups such as the Lowcountry Food Bank and the Charleston Area Children’s Garden Project. Farm staff worked with MUSC dietitians to put together dinners prepared from the harvest for families of sick children staying at the Ronald McDonald House and for cancer patients staying at Hope Lodge.
“Two worlds collide here: academic research and health care,” Johnson said. “Everyone gets something different out of it.”
One recent morning, volunteer Mary Helpern led six teenage patients from MUSC’s Institute of Psychiatry over to the crop beds and asked who likes radishes.
Two girls raised their hands halfheartedly, before another blurted out, “What’s a radish?”
Those are the moments Helpern lives for.
“I’m a Master Gardener, and I’m also a nurse,” she said. “Half of me sees it this way, and half of me sees it the other way.”
For her, MUSC’s Urban Farm is about more than food; it’s about healing.
“Having people work with their hands – putting a seed in the ground, watching it grow and knowing they cared for it – there’s really a therapy,” she said.
Helpern grew up on a 500-acre farm in Illinois with dairy cows, pigs and horses. She and her husband, physicist Joseph Helpern, both work at MUSC now, and they became involved with the Urban Farm soon after it began.
They recently donated a bird bath and a trellis. Mary also volunteers in the farm four or five days a week, teaching people how to grow foods and sometimes introducing them to new ones.
The farm’s next phase, after this growing season ends, includes installing hand-washing and produce-rinsing stations, a fence and a patio with bench seating and a more permanent shed. From there, staff members hope to take the urban farm beyond its half-acre plot to educate families across the state and to inspire institutions across the country.
To learn more about the Urban Farm or to sign up for a Work and Learn session, visit www.facebook.com/MuscUrbanFarm.