Catholic Health and Smile Farms open new garden at Mercy Hospital


Smile Farms, a nonprofit organization created in 2015 by James McCann, the founder of 1-800-Flowers, and his brother, Chris, has partnered with Catholic Health to address food insecurity and provide work opportunities for people with disabilities. The collaboration, supported by funding from the Town of Hempstead, has expanded with the creation of a new cooperative food garden at Catholic Health’s Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre.

The opening of the garden — the hospital’s second — was announced at a news conference on June 13 at its main campus, during which McCann highlighted Catholic Health’s commitment to the concept of “food as medicine.”

“It’s not just eating where it’s medicine, but it’s when you’re growing it, it’s medicine,” he said. “It’s had a big impact on how we think about things at Smile Farms.”

The initiative, which started in 2023 with the establishment of a cooperative garden at Mercy Hospital’s outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic in Garden City, aims to combat food insecurity on Long Island while supporting the development of those with special needs. The new, larger garden has 12 flower beds that will be tended by patients in the hospital’s Personalized Recovery Oriented Services, or PROS, behavioral health program, who will receive job training, and payment for their gardening work, from Smile Farms.

“While food insecurity continues to grow here on Long Island, we are also aware that mental health issues continue to be on the rise as well,” Joseph Manopella, Mercy’s president, said. “This garden, like our first, will offer vital building blocks that support mental health and spiritual well-being, and address hunger on Long Island. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this program, and am looking forward to seeing it grow.”

The need for food on Long Island has surged in recent years. According to a 2022 “Map the Meal Gap” study conducted by Feeding America, more than 221,000 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties were food insecure, an increase of more than 50 percent from the previous year. In response, Catholic Health and Smile Farms have strengthened their partnership to expand the reach and impact of the community gardens.

The new Rockville Centre garden will help PROS patients learn valuable job skills while contributing to the community. “You all know that work is a lot more than just a paycheck,” McCann said. “It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason for who you are, what you are, and it’s social. We need social interactivity to be healthy in all the ways we need to be healthy, and that’s what we try and create here at Smile Farms.”

The produce grown in the garden will be shared with those in need at the hospital’s Family Care Center, an outpatient clinic serving women and children.

“Our collaboration with Catholic Health is special and unique, as it affords our Smile Farmers the opportunity to give to others while concurrently giving to themselves,” Diana Martin, the managing director of Smile Farms, said in statement. “The mental health benefits of gardening are well documented: including decreased anxiety, stress, and depression and increased creativity, productivity, attention, memory, and self-esteem. We are grateful to Catholic Health and Supervisor Clavin for helping us bring our holistic vision and impact to life at a second site,” Martin added, referring to Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin.

Clavin played a critical role in facilitating the initiative, providing a portion of the funding for the new garden.

“The Town of Hempstead was proud to contribute funds toward the construction and development of this new Smile Farm at Catholic Health Mercy Hospital,” he said during the unveiling last Thursday, “but it’s the hard-working men and women of the PROS Program who will truly make this garden grow and thrive for years to come. I truly cannot think of a better way to benefit people with special needs and mental health challenges, while also providing healthy and nutritious food for new mothers and their children. We are confident that other civic organizations and local businesses across Long Island will follow the example of Mercy Hospital and create their own Smile Farms to benefit their communities.”

Smile Farms’ participants, known as Smile Farmers, grow, sell, and donate plants, produce, and products in their communities, fostering a sense of purpose and inclusion.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Jerry Rintz, one of those who tend to the garden, said. “It brings everybody together to help grow food and distributes it to needy patients.”

In addition to the gardens, Catholic Health’s food insecurity initiative provides emergency food to-go bags that are given out in its six emergency departments. Those who receive the bags are also referred to community-based organizations that can help them access resources like the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for regular access to healthy food.

To learn more about Catholic Health’s behavioral health services, visit Smile Farms currently partners with eight organizations across Long Island and New York City to serve people with disabilities and their local communities. For more information, go to