DSCN1777By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

If only every doctor’s office was such fun to visit!

I know, it sounds strange. But that’s what I kept thinking during my visit earlier this week to Martin Luther King Health Center‘s Wellness Garden in Shreveport. Amid the newly built (and flourishing) garden, a collection of patients and I took in a cooking demonstration, absorbing the savory aroma of sautéed Swiss chard, southern peas and tomatoes.

“It sure smells good,” one bystander said.

“It sure looks good,” another patient chimed in.

Of course, samples were handed out and promptly gobbled up.

And just the night before, also in the garden, the clinic hosted a Ladies Night Out event, offering women’s wellness checks in between a garden stroll, (sugar free) chocolate covered strawberries, fruit infused water. And did we mention the manicure station?

It may look like all fun and games. But underneath it all, there was a message — that good health extends beyond the doctor’s office. It requires healthy food, exercise, and yes, a place to exhale and relax.

“We wanted to offer more than just a clinical environment,” said Jennifer Donner, the clinic’s community garden coordinator and pharmacy tech. “We wanted to give patients a serene place to be. That’s part of being healthier, too.”

Soon, the garden space, which includes a new paved pathway for wheelchair patients,  will also feature yoga and stretching classes. And in the future, when funds allow, bicycles and elliptical machines will be added. The idea is that in between waiting on doctors appointments and prescription fills, patients can wander into the adjoining garden to participate in an exercise class, maybe volunteer to do a little gardening, or catch a cooking demonstration (from HGIO partner Shreveport Green). They can even do a little shopping, as all veggies grown in the garden will be available for sale at a nominal fee (or, when possible, given away, as was the case this past week, allowing patients to take home the veggies needed to make the Swiss chard dish at home).

“Our goal is to encourage patients to get out,” said Janet Mentesane, the clinic’s executive director. “We want to tell them, ‘Don’t stay inside! Come out here, to the garden, and do something! We don’t want people in the waiting room any more. We want to create a new norm here, extending our clinic outside!”

This amazing idea was the concept of Mentesane, a partner in the Healthy Green and Into the Outdoors wellness initiative, supported in part through Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant dollars. Mentesane saw the benefits of community gardens in other public settings, and it just struck her that a wellness garden at her own clinic DSCN1779 could have enormous benefits for patients. It’s a free clinic, after all. And many of these patients range from low income to homeless. Often, they don’t have access to things like garden classes, healthy vegetables, exercise, serene surroundings. So, she decided to give it to them, here, at the doctor’s office.

“When I had my house,” said 83 year old Lessie Hicks, who grew up in the country.”I used to have my own garden. I grew bell peppers and things. I was a cook, too! But I had to sell my house.”

And that was a long time ago, she said. No wonder she snapped up the veggies offered her way and savored our Swiss chard dish. Others, drawn by the aroma, trickled out.

“Go ahead,” said one clinic volunteer, “If you’ve had your lab work done, go ahead and eat!”

And now, more good news! Apparently, we weren’t the only ones impressed with the wellness garden. The clinic was just awarded another grant (details to come next week) to support the outdoor space.  That means more cooking demos, more veggies, more exercise opportunities.

Congratulations! Sustainability in action. Another Challenge Grant project set up for future success. And you know we love that.

Jennifer Donner, the clinic’s community garden coordinator and pharmacy tech, fills a prescription.
A clinic staffer hands out free samples of homemade sweet pickles (made by Shreveport Green).


Want to try the dish all the patients were raving about? Well, here ya go… Enjoy:

Swiss Chard with Southern Peas and Fresh Tomatoes
Prep Time: 10 Minutes

Cook Time: 15 Minutes

Ready In: 25 Minutes

Servings: 4

“Beans and greens are a perfect combination; earthy and satisfying. This recipe for Swiss chard with garbanzo beans, onion, and fresh tomato is brightened with lemon juice and makes a perfect vegetarian main dish or a tantalizing side dish for fish or meat.”


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 shallot, chopped

2 green onions, chopped

1/2 cup southern peas, drained (purple hull, black eyed peas, etc.)

salt and pepper to taste

1 bunch red Swiss chard, rinsed

and chopped

1 tomato, sliced

1/2 lemon, juiced


Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Stir in shallot and green onions; cook and stir for 3 to 5 minutes, or until soft and fragrant. Stir in peas, and season with salt and pepper; heat through. Place chard in pan, and cook until wilted. Add tomato slices, squeeze lemon juice over greens, and heat through. Plate, and season with salt and pepper to taste.