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Urban Farm offers food, escape

Sept. 18, 2012
By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

MUSC employee Mary Helpern teaches a patient about growing radishes at the urban farm
MUSC employee Mary Helpern teaches
a patient about growing radishes at the
urban farm.

A crisis arose at the corner of President and Bee streets.

Jane Madden popped up from a tomato bed and dashed over to show Mary Helpern the metallic-gold strand on the back of a leaf. 

“This is the leaf-footed bug that has been plaguing us!” Madden said. 

The two women, wearing khaki shorts splotched with soil, tend to this half-acre plot of land nearly every day. They and an assorted crew of volunteers care for MUSC’s Urban Farm, an operation physically yards away from the College of Dental Medicine but conceptually much further removed.

MUSC President Ray Greenberg championed the idea of an interactive garden in the center of campus – and in the middle of downtown Charleston – as a model for healthy living. Staff started planting seeds on the former parking lot in March and began gathering their first crops later in the spring. 

Today the urban farm includes sunflowers that stand twice as tall as the farmers, adaptive beds for wheelchair-bound volunteers and a comprehensive list of some 50 plants to keep the farm active all year long: lettuces, beans, squashes, herbs and more. 

First dibs on the harvest go to volunteers who come to weekly “Work and Learn” sessions held in the farm. That assorted crew includes patients from psychiatry and weight management programs, local students and residents and MUSC employees. They learn about the nutritional value of fresh produce while experiencing the stress relief and sense of accomplishment in harvesting their own food, according to Farm Director Susan Johnson, who also leads MUSC’s Office of Health Promotion.

How does your garden grow?

Sept. 18, 2012
By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

The MUSC Urban Farm began with little more than an idea and $10,000 in literal seed money.

Sodexo, the international food service company that runs MUSC’s cafeterias and employs its 26 registered dietitians, provided the startup cash to get the half-acre growing. Sodexo general manager Brad Masteller said he saw the farm as an opportunity to teach people, firsthand, about healthy eating.

Sodexo even uses some of the produce in its own offerings on campus, slicing up farm-fresh peppers for salads or sprinkling campus-grown basil on pizzas.

“We could wipe that out in one day with our volume, but we do use it occasionally if it’s not going to be used,” Masteller said. “The main thrust, though, is to educate.”

Sodexo dietitians join visitors in the farm for weekly “Lunch and Learn” sessions, where they discuss gardening and share recipes made with fresh produce. Meet them Thursdays from 12-1 p.m.

For more information, email

“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