By Paulien van de Vlasakker
Advanced technology and alternative food-production methods, such as vertical farming and hydroponic cultivation, are part of an upward trend of initiatives for the support of the transition of conventional food-production methods to more decentralized and local production systems. The development of high-tech urban agriculture is one strategy for more sustainable and resilient urban food systems being explored by cities worldwide to feed their increasing populations.
To contribute to the development of urban high-tech agriculture, I established Vegger in October 2016. Vegger is a start-up located on the Wageningen University & Research campus. During the first few years, my colleague and I designed and developed high-tech indoor gardens for the cultivation of vegetables and herbs inside people’s working and living environment. The indoor gardens that we created are cultivation systems equipped with horticultural led lightening, soilless cultivation methods and a controlled environment system. Vegger is part of StartLife, the business facilitator of Wageningen University. We rent our office/working space in StartHub, located in the Atlas Building.
For my internship, as part of my MSc Organic Agriculture, I conducted a pilot project with high-tech indoor gardens in two nursing homes of Stichting Innoforte located in Velp, Gelderland. Growing vegetables inside nursing homes can be a response to the need for an increased intake of fresh and local vegetables by elderly people. In addition to increasing vegetable intake among the elderly, this pilot project also focused on contributing to the creation of a healing environment in the nursing homes. A healing environment is a (physical) environment that aims to promote the well-being of patients, their family and the employees, and to reduce their stress. This way people may heal faster (or the (physical) environment does not worsen their situation). The goal of my internship was to explore how high-tech indoor gardens can contribute to: 1. the consumption of fresh vegetables and herbs among the residents, and 2. the healing environment of the location.
I placed the indoor gardens in two locations. One of the locations was specialized for elderly people with far stage dementia. The other location offered housing for elderly people that do not need (intensive) care. It is important to mention that the locations make use of a different food delivery system. In the location for demented elderly, the staff cooks with fresh foods and matching recipes delivered by their food supplier. The meals for the ‘healthy’ elderly from the other location are ready-to-eat frozen meals. These meals do not contain any fresh ingredients.
During my internship I supported the indoor gardens by delivering gardening services. These services consisted of the maintenance of the indoor garden, including the cultivation of plants. The staff was responsible for harvesting the fresh vegetables and herbs. A food expert was appointed by the health care organisation to assist with the contact between me and the end users (staff and residents of both locations). As research methods I used informal conversations with staff, elderly and friends and family of the elderly, observations of the use of the gardens (including harvesting, engaging with the garden, and talking with others over the garden), and measuring the number of plants harvested by staff.
The results of the study were different between both locations. In the nursing home where the demented elderly live, the indoor garden was especially useful to enhance the healing environment. The residents of the home liked to sit next to the indoor garden; the aesthetic aspect of the indoor garden contributed to an improved living and relaxing environment. The vegetables and herbs growing in the indoor garden, however, were not used to their full potential. This was due to the fact that the home for demented elderly was already being supplied with fresh ingredients by their food supplier. In the other home, where ‘healthy’ elderly people live, on the other hand, full usage was made of the vegetables and herbs from the indoor garden. This was because previously no fresh ingredients were used in the meals. Staff used the fresh vegetables and herbs to prepare side dishes such as soup or salad.
The difference between the use of the high-tech indoor gardens did not only relate to the difference in food supplier, but also to the mental health of the elderly. Elderly with dementia experience on average higher stress levels than mentally healthy elderly. Optimizing a healing environment with indoor gardens can therefore have a greater impact on providing a quiet and relaxed environment for the residents. In addition, the elderly who live in the home for ‘healthy’ elderly people were more aware of the meals that were served. The residents of the home indicated that the fresh vegetables and herbs not only made the meal taste better, but also contributed to the experience of the meal because there were ingredients used from their own garden.