Effects of high-tech urban agriculture on healing environments in Dutch nursing homes

It feels a bit odd to post about research results while the Corona virus is keeping us all occupied. However, last week Paulien van de Vlasakker defended her MSc thesis, and the results are nice to share. Moreover, so many of my colleagues are working very hard to keep education going – why not report on some of the nice things that are being done here at Wageningen University. For all those currently involved in cursory education: keep up the good work, you are heroes!

The text below is written by Paulien and describes the findings of her thesis. The thesis was preceded by an internship on the same topic, on which she reported earlier.

“In recent years, an increasing number of urban agriculture initiatives have been initiated to offer locally produced and fresh food products. One newer form of urban agriculture is high-tech urban agriculture. Advanced technologies, such as led lightening and hydroponic cultivation methods, allow the production of fresh vegetables and herbs inside the built-up environment. High-tech indoor gardens are a form of high-tech urban agriculture, combining food production with greening, and can offer advantages such as all-year-round production of leafy greens, improved air quality of the indoor space and enhancing the aesthetics of the location. The multifunctionality of high-tech indoor gardens can be of value for places where people live who are in need of improved well-being. In the Netherlands, welfare, housing, daily care and treatment for vulnerable elderly people come together in nursing homes.

I studied how high-tech indoor gardens can contribute to the well-being of elderly living in Dutch nursing homes. In care settings, the term ‘healing environment’ is often used to describe aspects of the environment that have health-improving benefits. The purpose of this study was to identify how and to what extent high-tech indoor gardens can contribute to the healing environment of nursing homes. High-tech indoor gardens have two distinct aspects: 1) the appearance of the garden itself, and 2) the production of food. I hypothesized that the appearance of the garden influences the perceived ambiance, enhancing mental and social well-being, and that the production of fresh vegetables and herbs contributes to the vegetable intake, improving physical well-being.

This case study research was inspired by social practice theory and looked at the emergence and transformation of existing practices in four different nursing homes, located in Velp (Province of Gelderland). I looked at how different leisure practices among elderly residents evolved around the indoor garden, and how the cooking practices performed by the caretakers were affected by the use of the freshly harvested products. For my data collection, I conducted interviews with elderly residents and decision makers. In addition, I used surveys to collect information from caretakers and performed observations at all four nursing homes. For the qualitative data analysis I used NVivo and for the quantitative data analysis I used SPSS.

The thesis concludes that high-tech indoor gardens are effective in the creation of  healing environments because they create more livable environments by improving the ambiance and influencing residents’ vegetable intake. I showed that vegetables produced by indoor gardens can influence vegetable intake by changing the meal experience. Residents explained that they could clearly distinguish the difference between a meal prepared with the vegetables from the indoor gardens and a dish without fresh vegetables. Most residents find it very important to eat fresh foods. They enjoy the taste of the different products from the garden and appreciate that they are locally and freshly produced. Many residents were used to growing vegetables in their own vegetable gardens and expressed feelings of familiarity and recognition towards the garden and its products. Especially typical Dutch herbs and vegetables, such as parsley, chives and butterhead lettuce are popular among the elderly residents.

Whether or not the harvest was used in cooking practices by caretakers was influenced by several factors: 1) Caretakers who have gardening experience and enjoy cooking, are more likely to integrate the harvested fresh vegetables and herbs in existing cooking practices than caretakers with no gardening experience and who do not enjoy the task of cooking; 2) In nursing homes in which mostly non-fresh ingredients are used for the preparation of meals (frozen meals), caretakers are more motivated to use the fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden, and 3) For optimal use of the indoor garden, it is important that it is placed close to the kitchen and close to the living area of the residents. Caretakers can more easily integrate harvesting practices with cooking and other practices when the garden is located at a place that they often pass by. When the garden is placed close to the living area of the elderly residents, the residents can enjoy the aesthetic aspects of the garden.”