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Dietician shares her leafy greens with the sick at SBU

Josephine Connolly-Schoonen is Woman of the Year in Health

Josephine Connolly-Schoonen established SBU’s rooftop farm. Photo from Maria Hoffman
December 27, 2012 | 10:16 AM
There's a farm growing on top of a building on the Stony Brook University campus. The organic herbs and veggies flourishing there have a very important job. They end up on the plates of university hospital patients, bringing the freshest possible nutrition to people who need it most. This garden of earthly delights was conceived and nurtured by Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, registered dietician, associate clinical professor and executive director of the Nutrition Division in the Department of Family Medicine. Her dedication to educating people about what it means to eat right has made her Woman of the Year in Health.

The farm has been sprouting four floors up on the roof of SBU's Health Sciences tower since July 2011. Farm manager Iman Marghoob, also a registered dietician and community gardens coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine, said the farm is funded through a five-year, $83,000 grant from the New York State Department of Health's Healthy Heart Program. It was Connolly-Schoonen, she said, who led the project from the beginning, convincing people that the idea would work.

"You can't just get up on the roof and declare that you're going to start a farm," Marghoob said. Connolly-Schoonen had to reassure campus facilities staff that the weight of the farm wouldn't break through the roof into the medical library below. As a precaution, they asked her not to use any machinery — just tools and elbow grease. So "70 bags of compost" had to be mixed into the soil by hand, Marghoob said, a job done with tender loving care by the farm's volunteers.

Hospital chef John Mastacciuola calls Connolly-Schoonen "very passionate" about the farm's health benefits. Together with Marghoob and Connolly-Schoonen, he decides what gets planted on the farm and what to use for the hospital menu. "Ninety percent" of the farm yield feeds the hospital's 580 patients, Mastacciuola said, and some of the food is offered at the hospital cafeteria. It all started with Connolly-Schoonen, who "insisted that bacon and soda come off the patient menu" and be replaced by the farm's organic fare, grown without pesticides or herbicides. "Our focus is making a healthy menu, and I take her lead," Mastacciuola said.

Patient favorites so far are sautéed rainbow Swiss chard (Mastacciuola served the leafy green vegetable with grilled chicken on top, and a side of whipped parsnips from the farm) and cherry tomatoes. Kale, not so much. "No matter how I made it, they just didn't go for it," he confessed. The farm's bounty also includes peppers, turnips, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers and eggplant. Basil, cilantro, parsley, chives and other herbs are also grown there.

New York state Assemblyman Steve Englebright called the roof, before the farm, a "pretty ugly" spot that "looked like the runway at Kennedy Airport." Englebright described Connolly-Schoonen as "a force" who saw a "deserted, forlorn area" and realized it could be a beautiful haven that grows food "just as wholesome as is possible." Convincing others to see the same potential took "a lot of courage," he said, and what she has accomplished "is a small miracle."

Helaine Krasner is one of Connolly-Schoonen's students, learning to be a registered dietitian. She helps out on the farm — pulling weeds, putting her hands in the dirt and tending the plants, and picking them when they're ripe. She said Connolly-Schoonen doesn't miss an opportunity to spread the word about "why we need food grown close to home. She says it's fresher and retains more of the nutrients." Working on the farm is "an amazing experience" for Krasner and her classmates, she said, and "unique. Not every dietetic training program has a farm."

Connolly-Schoonen puts her money where her mouth is, according to Krasner, who says her teacher "eats a lot of vegetables. She always brings a giant salad for lunch."

Last month Connolly-Schoonen received the 2012 Health Care Professional Award from Long Island Business News, "for improving food environments in community agencies, such as public schools and child care agencies, and as an expert in obesity prevention and management."

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