BENNINGTON - Employees at Southwestern Vermont Health Care have an opportunity to take home healthy food thanks to a vegetable garden on the hospital grounds and partnership with The Tutorial Center's Youth Agriculture Program.

The program, which was funded by a grant from Southern Vermont College and the Bank of Bennington, enhances health and fitness offerings the health system provides for its employees.

"We already have given away six baskets of fresh salad greens harvested from the SVMC garden," explained Laura LaCroix, an SVMC chef and one of the architects of the hospital's garden program. "It's still relatively early in the season. By the end of the summer we expect to have given away hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables to SVHC staff."

The garden contains a variety of leafy salad greens, peppers, squash, basil, cucumbers, green beans, onions, eggplant, and tomatoes.

The Youth Ag Program at The Tutorial Center helped install the garden and is assisting employees from the hospital's Food and Nutrition Services Department tend the plants.

Funding for the garden came from a grant from a philanthropy class at Southern Vermont College. In addition to the garden, the grant funded employee fitness classes, and healthy cooking education, and four community supported agriculture half-shares from Clearbrook Farm to be distributed by lottery to SVHC employees throughout the summer.

To plant and tend the garden, the health system reached out to Youth Agriculture Program run by The Tutorial Center, which is based in Bennington and has a second site in Manchester. In place since 2006 the Youth Agriculture Program, also called YAP, is designed to help youth learn job and life skills by growing, harvesting, and marketing plants and vegetable crops.

The program began with a single garden in Bennington and has since expanded to multiple sites in four town and two counties. The program also regularly works with Meals on Wheels to help provide a steady stream of fresh organic produce for area seniors.

"We are thrilled to work with the hospital staff to put in and tend a garden," said Katherine Keys, YAP director. "Gardening is something that everyone can do, but getting started can be a challenge. It's helpful to have a mentor who can answer questions and provide the benefits of experience. Students from the Tutorial Center are able to use their expertise in growing food to help teach others while they continue to learn at the same time."

LaCroix explained that at present, the garden is producing mostly salad crops.

However, as the season progresses, she expects the vegetables to come into production.

"As we move into late summer, the onions, eggplant, peppers, and squash will be ready," LaCroix explained. "As we begin to distribute these, we plan to include education and easy recipes for how to work these fresh foods into everyday cooking."

The hospital staff say this garden is only the start of what they hope will grow into a stronger relationship with the YAP.

"SVHC's employees are important ambassadors to the wider community," LaCroix explained. "By showing our own employees that gardening can produce healthy food, we are leading by example. We hope that we can continue to work with the Youth Agriculture Program to continue and possibly expand this effort next year."