Healing and Hope on the Farm

Centuries later, the wisdom of Hippocrates is carried out every day at Hopewell, a therapeutic farm community for residents with serious mental illness. At this sprawling 300-acre place of respite 60 miles outside of Cleveland, residents work as an integral part of a farm community while participating in the facility’s holistic approach to mental health treatment. As the only such facility in Ohio, and one of only a handful across the country, Hopewell offers its residents a treatment option wholly unlike that of standard hospital-based care. Spearheading the nutritional element of the treatment team’s integrative approach is food service manager Susan Dacek. Through collaboration with staff and a kitchen crew of residents, the dining experience at Hopewell offers a truly farm-to-table experience for clients seeking treatment for issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

Dacek explains that while the cuisine at Hopewell may not be what incoming residents are used to, they enjoy the food and are learning why it is important. After a resident questioned why tuna was a frequent menu item, Dacek took the time to explain the relationship between brain health and the omega-3 fatty acids in tuna. According to Michael Berk, chair of psychiatry at Deakin University, omega-3s reduce inflammation in both the body and brain caused by diets high in fat and sugar, enabling brain cells to grow and thrive. These educational moments reinforce the relationship between food and health, encouraging residents to continue to make positive nutritional choices moving forward.

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The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research proposes that there is high-quality evidence supporting nutritional approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. The organization asserts that several nutrients have a clear link to brain health, and advocates nutritional change as a means to improve mental health. To that end, Dacek collaborates with a registered dietician to create a rotating five-week menu of low-processed foods as close to the farm as possible. Residents are provided with whole grain yeast breads made from scratch, and quick breads that Dacek insists contain some form of produce, such as banana, zucchini, or apple. A Vitamin A-rich vegetable, such as butternut squash or spinach, is offered daily along with a weekly side dish containing a whole grain, such as millet, quinoa, or barley. Refined sugars have been eliminated, replaced with maple syrup tapped from trees on the farm and honey from bees raised on site. The farm even switched to raising only grass-fed cows for lean meat high in omega-3 and omega-6.

With residents arriving from all over the country, often from urban areas, the newfound rural environment encourages a connection to the land and offers them opportunities to experience success and to develop life skills with the goal of returning to a more independent living situation.

“I came from the city but I didn’t feel out of place here,” says Hopewell resident Dana, who works on the garden and art crew. Dana describes beginning her work on the farm by picking green beans. “It was so [much] fun to eat what I picked. It was a totally new experience and I enjoyed it more because of the hard work.”

Studies indicate that farm-based therapy creates a prosperous environment by allowing residents to engage in meaningful work in a variety of social groups while removed from the problems of life outside of the farm. At Hopewell, the garden and kitchen crews collaborate to determine which foods to prepare, according to what is ready for harvest. If the garden crew reports a bumper crop of peppers and tomatoes, the kitchen crew makes fresh salsa. After returning from apple picking, the garden crew looks forward to fresh cider in the kitchen later that day. Dacek also steams the crew’s surplus produce and freezes it, enabling her to surprise residents on a cold snowy day with the summer’s bounty. “The memory of the heat and hard work of berry picking is so nourishing,” says Dacek.

By working on teams, such as kitchen, animal care, and wood shop, residents develop a sense of community and belonging. “Hopewell offers residents the chance to live a life apart from their diagnosis,” says clinician Laura Scarnecchia. “They are able to access their gifts and talents as well as addressing clinical needs.”

A sense of wonder, belonging, and purpose is evident in the hum of activity at Hopewell. Just back from gathering eggs, resident Mike washes each one carefully before cradling them gently in cardboard trays. An enormous bowl of whole grain oatmeal cookie dough sits on the pristine kitchen counter waiting to be formed into cookies by a member of the kitchen crew. Farm crew facilitator Bruce McAllister relays the awe of a new resident who had just seen the hens laying eggs for the first time, while gardening and arts facilitator Cindy Wagner explains that even the seedlings for the farms plants are grown on-site in the farm’s greenhouse. “When the residents see the seedling slowly growing, they grow themselves,” she explains.

The offerings of the farm not only feed the residents of Hopewell, but also give them the opportunity to feed others. After placing 1,600 taps during last year’s maple syrup season, Hopewell residents worked to collect and package 6,700 single- serve bottles of syrup to be enjoyed by customers of the Yours Truly restaurant chain. Syrup is also sold in the Hopewell Store on the farm’s property, along with produce and items created by the woodworking crew. “It makes the residents feel good to help get food out to others that is grown in a healthy way,” says farm manager Norman Wengerd.

Despite being far removed from the convenience of city life, Hopewell feels inherently self-sufficient. Residents work together and with staff to sustain a life for themselves that is simple and nurturing—tending the animals, creating their meals, and working toward their own healing. “You’re surrounded by all of this beauty,” says resident Dana. “You’re helping to grow beauty that changes with the seasons and never stops. It’s ever-changing grace.”