Welcome to the Sky Farm

A rooftop garden at a hospital in Indianapolis engages patients and staff to learn more about food and healthy living

Sky Farm

by Dawn Olsen

Urban farmer Rachel White walked up, down, and around the raised garden beds, watering her most recent plantings. Every few moments, she would pause and scratch her arms, which were tanned from the summer sun, but itchy from harvesting. She had collected tomatoes, beans, and berries all day, working non-stop. White didn’t take a lunch; instead, she took care of the garden – a “sky farm” on the roof of an Indianapolis hospital.

The 5,000-square-foot Sky Farm, which yielded more than 2,200 pounds of food in its first year, is located atop the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital in downtown Indianapolis. The hospital is part of Eskenazi Health, the oldest and largest public health care system in Indiana, with a mission to advocate, care, and teach, with special emphasis on vulnerable populations.

The Sky Farm, now in its third season, fully embraces Eskenazi’s mission. It teaches patients, staff, and community members how to engage with food, and it promotes healthy living. “People know what vegetables look like in a store,” said White, “but maybe they don’t know what they look like when they’re planted or growing. People come to the Sky Farm and make the connection.”

To create the Sky Farm, the hospital partnered with Growing Places Indy, a non-profit organisation that focuses on urban agriculture and provides farm support services. In addition to working with Eskenazi Health, Growing Places Indy farms several “micro-farms” in Indianapolis. At the largest site, a 13,000-square-foot U-Pick farm, community members can learn how food is grown, pick their own produce, and learn about food preparation and storage. Like the Sky Farm, it exposes individuals to urban agriculture, teaches them how to engage with food, and promotes healthy living.

Sky Farm

White emphasised that the Sky Farm isn’t “just a garden” – it’s an educational space. Dietitians hold nutrition classes there, and people can take vegetables home. And since the Sky Farm is open to the public 24/7, visitors can stroll among the garden beds, point out things they recognise, and ask questions about what they don’t. “It’s kind of like a science lab,” said White. “That’s one of my favourite things about working here. Just seeing everyone learn.”

“It’s nice for patients to have a quiet space away from their room,” White explained. “I do know some nurses and physical therapists use the space … and the patients who talk to me really like it and are amazed that it is at a hospital and on a roof.”

In other words, the Sky Farm serves as a reprieve; patients can leave their hospital room, breathe the fresh air, and bathe in sunlight. It’s refreshing. It’s encouraging. And it gives patients the opportunity to learn about preventive medicine and ways of healthy living.

Produce from the Sky Farm also goes to the cafe located on the hospital’s campus. “I like to give them things that are in their menu already so they don’t have to create new recipes,” said White.

But despite the Sky Farm’s size, it doesn’t stretch to all of the hospital’s 5,000 employees and one million annual outpatient visitors; however, there are plans to expand it. Some of the Sedum plots – which help regulate the building’s temperature – will be converted into additional beds and add about 2,000 square feet.

Sky Farm

There is also a beehive maintained by Bee Public, which is making Indianapolis a more bee-friendly city. The organisation, which does not harvest the honey its bees make, focuses on increasing awareness about honeybee plight and the link between pollinators and the food system. It gives classroom presentations and has also installed hives at four area schools, an urban kitchen, and one of the Growing Places Indy farms. As for the hive at the Sky Farm, it gives bees access to the plants and flowers at Eskenazi Health, as well as the Indianapolis Zoo.

Other Sky Farm features include 30-inch-tall beds for patients in wheelchairs, who come to the rooftop garden for physical therapy. There also are 14 employee plots, for which demand is high.

White, who is on track to harvest more than 3,000 pounds of produce this year, said she loves the Sky Farm’s ability to connect individuals – patients, hospital employees, community members – to the earth. Because the Sky Farm is more than a garden: it’s an educational space, and a spot that inspires individuals to start a garden of their own.

White scratched her arm. “Sometimes, you just have to start growing stuff and see what happens.”

Dawn Olsen is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. She writes about architecture, historic preservation, and art and photography


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