Farm-to-Table Dining Hits the Retirement Home

Aging Americans are enjoying healthier meals that support local economies thanks to a shift in sourcing in eldercare facilities.
Students involved in Eastern Mennonite University's Sustainable Food Initiative pick green beans at The Farm at Willow Run. (Photo:

Aug 12, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Green beans are a “touchy” subject at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, where preferences fall on either side of the Mason-Dixon: soft-cooked Southern-style for some, crisp sautéed Northern-style for others. But diners are united in just how good they’ve been this summer.

“The freshness of the green beans really comes through, no matter how they like it,” said VMRC’s chef, Eric Phipps.

Since early summer, those beans haven’t had to travel far. Just down the road, the five-acre Farm at Willow Run, staffed by volunteers and six work-study students from neighboring Eastern Mennonite University, has produced thousands of pounds of produce—green beans, corn, heirloom tomatoes, white potatoes, and squash (sweet, spaghetti, and butternut)—all of which have been delivered to VMRC’s dining services door. And the residents of the Harrisonburg, Virginia, facility aren’t alone. Call it farm-to-retirement-home-table dining: Just as schools and hospitals increasingly work to source their menus closer to home, retirement and assisted living communities are striving to serve more local food.

To let food be thy medicine, quality matters. Adequate nutrition is a key component of health in people over 65. The better the taste, the more enthusiastic the eater, and the more likely people are to reap the benefits of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, and prevention of some types of cancer.

“It’s part of our philosophy,” said Maureen Pearson, VMRC’s director of communications. “To help people age well, one of the best things we can do is to serve up fresh foods that we’ve grown and we know how they’ve been grown.” While not certified, the food grown at the farm is cultivated using organic practices. Turning an unproductive parcel of land into a working farm that grows cherry tomatoes for the salad bar and zucchini for quick breads also helped further another mission: to be good stewards of the land.

Though good, fresh food is central philosophy to holistic health care, the path to it is often mired with roadblocks. Institutions that don’t have their own farmland like VMRC may struggle to incorporate local vendors into their contracts with large distributors. Likewise, it can be a challenge for small farms to be able to guarantee food delivery in large enough quantities, in time to meet deadlines, and with proper liability coverage. Anchor institution chefs, dietitians, and consumers understand the appeal of fresh local produce, but the more frequent deliveries required by smaller outfits don’t fit the large-scale corporate food buying and distribution model.

It’s a hole in the market that Boston-based Unidine hopes to fill. The kitchens the company runs in 120 senior living facilities operate under the Fresh Food Pledge: All salad dressings, sauces, and stocks will be made from scratch; food will be locally sourced; the eggs will be laid by cage-free hens; and the meat will be hormone- and antibiotic-free. The company’s founder, Richard Schenkel, thought this model would be more cost-efficient as well as better tasting, and so far receipts have born that out. The head of housing for a company that owns 29 senior living facilities said its food costs had not gone up since hiring Unidine “because it is less expensive to buy food and prepare it than to buy it already prepared and warm it up,” as she told NPR.

At VMRC, the switch to sourcing produce from The Farm at Willow Run has lowered the bill and put a larger bounty than usual on the kitchen chopping blocks, stretching Phipps to come up with creative dishes. He’s currently toying with the idea of a zucchini hush puppy served with a red pepper coulis. By mid-October, VMRC hopes to reach a yield goal from the farm equal to $24,000 of produce.

The relative smallness of VMRC could account for its simple-enough switch from Florida-grown tomatoes to local heirloom Cherokee purples. It might also have something to do with Harrisonburg itself—a traditionally Mennonite area that places not only stewardship and justice at its core but community.

Down the road at EMU, senior Tyler Eshleman said VMRC has been a model for the school’s Sustainable Food Initiative, where part of the mission is to look at how other institutions can better utilize their resources to create closed loops systems of sustainability.

“They’re living that out in a very cool way,” Eshleman said after a morning of picking squash at the farm. Independent living residents often come to work alongside the students in the field. Having grown up on farms or tended gardens themselves for years, the seniors are happy to impart some intergenerational green-thumb wisdom.

“Getting to hear people talk about their interest in sustainable agriculture, the way they grew up, memories of canning, giving us advice, encouraging us in our enthusiasm—it’s been really cool to have that support,” he said.