A Project SOIL report prepared by Emily Cho.


Farming and food production on the grounds of public institutions is, of course, not a new thing: a century ago, many large  institutions had to raise, grow, harvest and process most or all of the food for their sizeable populations of patients, inmates, students, and/or staff.

The largest of these often produced on such a scale that their surplus also helped to feed the surrounding communities. The Ontario Reformatory “produced enough baked goods to supply all of the psychiatric institutions in Ontario.”

Health institutions in Ontario around the turn of the 20th century were evolving with rapid epidemiological and technological advances, growing service populations, and the need to effectively respond to epidemics and mental health illnesses. Public institutions operating in the early 1900s had to be largely self-sufficient to be able to care for its staff and clients. As such, institutions were regularly built on arable farmland to support livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry) and produce. This paper showcases several examples of Ontario institutions that carried out food production on-site in the 1900s. The summaries include brief descriptions of each institution’s history, with emphasis on food production.

Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital

Historical information and images were sourced from “From Institution to Community – A transformation of Psychiatric hospital services 1934-2004” by Peter Raffo, published by the St. Joseph’s Care Group in 2005.

Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital was the product of many years dedication to bringing mental health care to the residents of Northwestern Ontario. There had been a long held grievance in the region regarding the lack of a mental hospital because up until the mid-30s, anyone defined as mentally ill would have been sent to the southern parts of the province for care (page 12). This system often separated patients from their families and homes for years.

F1LPHshelterFigure 1. Cattle shelter, Ontario Hospital Fort William, 1936.

A new era in care emerged as a train with 12 mentally ill male patients, their attendants, a doctor, a cook, and two nurses arrived in Fort William in 1936 (page 10) to initiate the first localized mental hospital. At this time, female patients were still transferred to southern Ontario hospitals for care. Fort William included a collection of buildings on 1,300+ acres of land previously used as an industrial prison farm run by the Ontario Department of Reforms (page 10). This provided arable farmland to support livestock such as cattle (Figure 1), poultry (Figure 2), and fresh produce. Farm hands were hired locally and patients were expected to work to develop and maintain the farmland (Page 18). However, success was not without obstacles. Only one year later, the Ontario Hospital Fort William reached its patient capacity and newer patients were yet again sent to Toronto (page 19).

F2LPHbirdsFigure 2. Barnyard turkeys, Ontario Hospital Fort William, 1936

By the Second World War, the hospital cared for over 100 patients in a facility meant for 75 (page 28). In response, a hospital building occupied by military in neighbouring town, Port Arthur, was returned to civilian use as a mental hospital after the war. In 1944, 45 patients from Fort William were transferred to Port Arthur (page 30).

Despite the two locations, an inspection in 1945 by the Department of Health found overcrowding to be a universal issue, along with poor water supply, and the Fort William farm being ineffective at producing enough fresh produce for the daily diets of patients (page 35). A larger hospital with consistent supply of safe water and productive land to feed its patients was sorely needed in Northwestern Ontario at that point.

F3portarthurFigure 3. Grand opening of Ontario Hospital Port Arthur, May 26, 1954.

At last, with provincial support to increase beds available to psychiatric patients in 1949, contracts were awarded to build a new hospital in Port Arthur on Algoma Street the following year (page 41). Canada’s involvement in the Korean War effort delayed construction, due to resource scarcity, resulting in the official opening of Ontario Hospital Port Arthur in May 1954, see Figure 3 (page 42). The anticipated final size would be over 1,200 beds housed within five pavilions connected to a main administrative building (page 43). Raising livestock discontinued on this site, however, a larger garden was installed behind the patient pavilions to grow vegetables for hospital use (page 44).

F4portarthurdrawingFigure 4. Drawing of Ontario Hospital Port Arthur site.

With its larger capacity, the Ontario Hospital Port Arthur could finally admit and support female patients. From the first admission date, the hospital served roughly equal male and female patient population (page 46). By March 1955, the last patient from Fort William was transferred to the new hospital and grounds converted back to a prison farm for young offenders (page 47). In-patient population peaked in 1966 with an average of 970, going up to over 1000 at any time in the year (page 49).

In the summer months, patients who were not seriously ill were encouraged to spend time outside and work on the vegetable gardens, see Figure 5 (page 50). A cultural shift in patient care took place in the late 1950s and the 1960s, which saw the abandonment of restrictive practices that “institutionalize” patients, in favour of programs that rehabilitate and offer choice. This shift solidified into the Mental Health Act of 1967 (page 60). By 1968, 200 patients were employed at the hospital garden (page 57). However, the gardens were abandoned in the 1970s (page 50).

F5vegportAFigure 5. Vegetable garden at Hospital Port Arthur, early 1960s.

Renamed as Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital, mental health care in Ontario became more community focused, integrating into the rest of the public health system. In the mid-1970s, psychiatric wards were de-segregated into male and female common wards, and patient numbers fell due to growing out-patient services, group homes, and mental health clinics (page 78). After 25 years of services, Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital has emerged as an integral community resource.

Kingston General Hospital

Historical information and images were sourced from “Kingston General Hospital, A Social and Institutional History” by Margaret Angus, published by the Kingston General Hospital, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal in 1973.

The history of Kingston General Hospital goes back to the beginning of British settlement. Kingston was the main port of entry for materials and people into Upper Canada and served as a naval base and garrison town. As a result, it became the center for medical treatment of transient people, and civilians benefited from the military’s medical professionals and surgeons (page 1).

Around the 1800s, Kingston had a few naval and military hospitals, however none served citizens. The rich did not go to the hospital and the poor were commonly cared for at home or boarding houses arranged by religious societies (page 2). When military rule ended in 1788, Town Wardens gained responsibility for the care of the sick poor (page 1). During the 1800s, the number of sick civilians requiring aid increased significantly due to growing commerce, immigration, and the return of ex-militia men and families (page 3 and 6). Charities stepped forward to provide help.

From the 1810s to 1840s, the Female Benevolent Society (FBS) provided the only hospital care for the sick poor in Kingston (page 4). Temporary hospitals were set up in abandoned military blockhouses and brewery warehouses, providing food, shelter, and nursing care seasonally from November to May (page 4). Local doctors provided medical services for free. Demand for care kept growing and the FBS were unable to keep up. With great public pressure, Kingston attained its first permanent public hospital in 1835, with space to accommodate 120 patients (pages 6 and 11). With a lack of funding, the joy was short-lived. Construction was delayed and the town could no longer operate it. In turn, the hospital was used as a temporary parliament building in 1840 when Kingston was being considered as the official capital of Upper and Lower Canada (page 16).

Still lacking funding in 1845, the town commissioners granted the FBS use of the building to operate their seasonal charity hospital (page 23). Supported by monetary, food, and materials donations from the community, the hospital opened its doors. By May 1846, wings were full of patients with nowhere to go (page 23). Doctors and the FBS recognized the need for year-round service and that operations were not sustainable when run solely by volunteers and donation. Appeals for the government to incorporate the hospital went unanswered until a bill passed in 1849 labeling the Kingston General Hospital as a national project “to supply necessities and relieve condition of sick and destitute emigrants and other transients and mariners of the Lakes” (page 25).

Kingston General Hospital (KGH) evolved through management by an appointed Board of Governors. Finances were managed, donations pursued, and relationships built with local doctors and the Queen’s University Faculty of Medicine to enhance service. From the beginning, a small budget was allocated for food purchases, however, the hospital continued to appeal for donations, reaping various goods such as barrels of apples, bushels of potatoes, gallons of beer, and sections of beef (page 40). Details of on-site food production are sparse in historical literature. However, we know grounds were ploughed for planting potatoes in 1854 (page 28). In 1863, one man was hired to overlook the garden and ground two days a week (page 40). In an Admissions Ledge from 1853-1866, a recording of patient details reveal that mobile patients were given duties such as gardening, cleaning, and serving food (page 34). In 1867, livestock were no longer able to run at large (page 43). In 1868, a root house was built to store produce from the hospital garden and incoming donations (page 48). In 1891, cows were no longer kept on hospital grounds (page 68). In a financial report from September 1893, the hospital garden produced an income of $91.35, whereas over $5000 was spent on food items ($364.51 of which were vegetables) (page 71).

F6KGHFigure 6. Original Kingston General Hospital building.
Cattle can be seen in the foreground.

By the 1880s, KGH moved beyond a charity hospital as more paying patients attended the hospital for surgery (page 54). Paying patients increased demand for better service, which influenced the food offered. Simple foods were served to charity patients, while luxuries such as fish and fruits cost extra. Hoists to carry food from basement kitchen to patient floors and refrigerators were installed in the 1880s to improve food quality (page 54 and 64). As more hospital wings were constructed, food preparation got distributed to improve food access. In 1910, after patient complaints about food, the Women’s Aid Society paid for a qualified dietician (page 93).

Despite financial struggles in KGH’s infancy, the hospital grew to accommodate over 200 beds in 1914, treating 2,100 in-patients and 1,500 outpatients that year (page 94). In 1917, the Chancellor of Queen’s University gave KGH $100,000 to develop itself into a modern institution with emphasis on furthering research and teaching facilities (page 97). The hospital became instrumental in teaching future medical professionals, applying new practices and treatments to improve patient results.


Renfrew Victoria Hospital

Historical information and images were sourced from “Renfrew Victoria Hospital, Celebrating the Past, Caring for Tomorrow 1897-1997” by Carol Bennett McCuaig, published by Juniper Books Ltd, in Renfrew, Ontario in 1997.

Prior to Renfrew Victoria Hospital, local doctors travelled house to house to treat patients in Renfrew. In 1884, the Ontario Legislature began a system of local Boards of Health to provide care for patients with contagious and infectious diseases (page 9). During smallpox outbreaks in the late 1880s, empty farmhouses were temporarily used as isolation hospitals because the local Council could not be persuaded to purchase a permanent building (page 9).

In 1897, a great deal of local support was expressed to build a hospital to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. A combination hospital was hence built. The first floor designated for general use and the second floor, only accessed from the outside, for isolation. Two separate medical facilities under one roof appalled the Inspector of Provincial Institutions, who directed the hospital be used only for isolation of infectious diseases until additional buildings were constructed (page 16). The first patient was taken in on March 1898, a woman with diphtheria (page 16). Switching to general care required hiring permanent staff. Between 1898 and 1899, twenty-nine patients were treated, costing the town $1,100 despite income from patient fees for nursing and food (page 17). Much like many healthcare institutions at the time, heavy fundraising was pursued and the community continued to support the hospital with donations in furnishings and food.

F7RVHFigure 7. Earliest known photo of Renfrew Victoria Hospital, 1906.

In the statement of receipts and expenditures for the year ending in October 1, 1906, 31% of total expenditures went towards produce, meats, groceries and beverages (page 19). Purchased food products included butcher’s meat, butter, eggs, flour, bread, milk, tea, coffee, beer, wine, potatoes and other vegetables. It is uncertain when on-site food production began at the hospital, however, by 1910, a cook was hired to prepare hospital meals and arrangements were made to hire help for the hospital garden, cows, and poultry (page 20). In 1919, the hospital had 5 pigs and 21 hens laying an average of 15 eggs a day (page 27). The garden was a failure in 1919, compared to the 60 bushels of potatoes produced in 1918 (page 27). Prior to the 1920s, cows were kept on site for their milk (page 27).

Demand for medical attention grew successively. By 1912, the hospital was overcrowded and citizens of the town voted $10,000 be allocated for hospital use (page 25). Extensions for the hospital were drawn up and by 1914, the hospital increased from the original 12 beds to 30 (page 25). Unfortunately, on January 1926, a fire broke out at the hospital and damaged the infrastructure (page 31). Services were temporarily moved to a local hotel.

Work began on a new building in September 1926, completed in October 1927 with 50 beds and more modern facilities (page 33). The hospital caretaker and gardener were reported to have rejoiced in the “good sized space for a garden which can be used to produce much of the vegetables used in the hospital. Pigs can be fed from the waste matter from the kitchen. Fowls can also be kept” (page 34). A root cellar was built to store extra produce (page 42). In addition to the garden, the hospital received many gifts from citizens, including baked goods, preserves, and fall produce when there was abundance, which the cook was expected to can (page 41).

F8newRVHFigure 8. The new Victoria Hospital, 1927.

The hospital kept large gardens to supply fresh vegetables well into the late 1930s, while contracts to supply milk and bread were awarded to external providers (page 43). By the 1960s, the hospital was once again operating over capacity. Successive expansions continued into the next decades, reflecting the changes to demand and evolving medical practices.
F9expansion-1970Figure 9. The expanded hospital of 1970.


The Royal Mental Health Group

The Royal Mental Health Group consists of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre and the Brockville Mental Health Centre (previously the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital), the uOttawa Institute of Mental Health Research, Royal Ottawa Place, and the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health.

I. The Brockville Psychiatric Hospital

Historical information and images were sourced from “Brockville Psychiatric Hospital Book of Memories 1884-2000” compiled by the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital Book Committee, no date, in Brockville.

F10BrockvilleFigure 10. Brockville Hospital, 1898.

In 1892, plans were drafted for the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital (Figure 10), then known as the Eastern Hospital for the Insane, on a 110-acre property overlooking the St. Lawrence River (see Figure 11).

F11origBrockvFigure 11. Map of original property.

The building consisted of a main complex and six cottages, three for each gender (page 2). The hospital officially opened in 1894 with the transfer of 73 patients from Mimico (page 6). The 3-storey tall main building provided accommodation for 240 patients along with the administration offices, kitchen, laundry, storeroom, and bakery (page 2). The hospital’s water tower contained four large tanks, each able to hold 18,000 gallons of water (page 2).

North-east of the hospital were the farm buildings (Figure 12). The main building was a bank barn, containing a 14-feet square by 24-feet deep silo and stables for horses and cows (page 3). Next to the bank barn is a slaughterhouse, which houses the hospital’s sheep and cattle and also includes a cold storage apartment with all necessary appliances (page 3). A 90- by 30-feet frame structure kept pigs (page 3).
F12mapoffarmFigure 12. Map of farm property.

The farm was an impressive operation. Among the first appointed hospital staff was a farm superintendent.

F13farmhouseFigure 13. A stone farmhouse.

By 1906, there were 800 people to look after at the hospital with 75 officers and staff (page 10). Among the support systems were a store, kitchen (Figure 14), bakery, farm, garden, greenhouse, carpenter shop, tailor shop, butcher shop, cold storage, and laundry (page 10).

F14fitchenFigure 14. The kitchen was state-of-the-art at the time.

  • The farmer kept 30 cows, 8 horses, and 150 pigs.
  • The gardener was noted for fine productions from his plot.
  • The butcher handed out 400 lbs of meat per day.
  • The baker produced around 900 loaves of bread a day.
  • A root house was built to store the garden’s produce.
  • A new stock scale was procured for weighing cattle that arrive for the hospital’s use.
  • A greenhouse was built in 1907 and continued to supply all plants for the hospital (Figure 15)

F15greenhouseFigure 15. Hospital greenhouse.

By 1943, the hospital was serving 1130 patients and 8 staff were hired for the farms and gardens (page 33).

Engaging patients in “occupation” was important at the hospital. There were as many as 100 patients at work on the grounds daily (page 10). Approximately 28 permanent long-term male patients lived and worked on the farm under the guidance of the farm staff (page 14). The hospital believed the practice of “open-air occupation” deserved as much attention as other methods in treating mental diseases and conditions (page 10). In addition to the farm, patients worked throughout the hospital, including the kitchen and workshops.

F16farmhouseParkdaleFigure 16. Farmhouse on Parkdale Avenue.

The hospital acquired the “North” and “Stagg” farms in 1911 and the “Abbott” and “Barrager” farms in 1915, which resulted in a consolidated property of 520 acres (page 14). The farms were fully equipped with barns, poultry barns, milking parlours, machinery sheds, stables, and homes for farm staff. Horses were kept to do work around the grounds (page 39).

F17cornharvestFigure 17. Harvesting corn at the farm.

The farm provided a wide variety of products for the hospital, such as potatoes (40 acres of it), strawberries, raspberries and apples (pages 15 and 39). All equipment, seeds, and supplies were paid for by the sale of produce to hospitals in Brockville, Smiths Falls, and Kingston, which enabled the hospital’s farm and gardens to be completely self-sufficient (page 15). In 1921, the hospital generated revenue of $11,179.21 from the farm (and miscellaneous) (page 17).
F18refrigFigure 18. Early refrigeration at the hospital, 1928.

The hospital terminated its farming operations in 1967 (page 48). The large land bank created was used to develop the city of Brockville, giving birth to recreational, educational, economic developments. Fortunately, the hospital gardens persisted. In 1972, over 40 acres of land was cultivated (page 53), producing:

  • 4,000 bags of potatoes
  • 40 tons of turnips
  • 1,000 bushels of tomatoes
  • 50 tons of cabbage
  • 1,500 bags of carrots.

Around 30 patients were engaged in weeding, hoeing, planting, and harvesting various crops. An additional 6-7 patients would work in the greenhouse to prepare soil and do general maintenance (page 53). Other than food, the greenhouse was used to produce 2,000 plants for hospital use plus 750 Christmas plants, 200 Easter lilies, 17,000 bedding plants, and 9,000 garden seedlings in the year 1984 (page 63).
F19harvestFigure 19. Pumpkins grown at the garden.

From 1960s onwards, the number of in-patients decreased rapidly (Figure 20) as the pursuit of a community treatment model took hold. This change in care coincided with placing priority on respecting patient dignity and support for recovery.
F20BPHnumbersFigure 20. Brockville Psychiatric Hospital in-patient numbers through history.

II. The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre

Historical information and images were sourced from “The Story of the Royal Ottawa Hospital 1910 to 1985” by Ronald J. F. Power, published by Mutual Press Ltd, Ottawa, in 1985.


In the early 1900s, tuberculosis posed a great threat to public health. In response, the Ottawa City Council purchased a 5-acre property to open the 30-bed Lady Grey Hospital in February 1910 to treat tuberculosis patients (page 23). The first annual inspection by the Inspector of Hospitals for the Province of Ontario in 1911, commended the large number of patients cared for by the hospital and how patients were provided with the best food supplies that could be purchased (page 30). The inspection focused on food as the Inspector believed the kitchen is the department with greatest influence on patient contentment. The same year, a 1.5-acre vegetable garden and a 40-bird hennery were installed to produce fresh vegetable and eggs for the hospital (page 32). In addition to food produced on site, Lady Grey Hospital regularly received food donations from the community.

F21LadyGreyFigure 21. Lady Grey Hospital circa 1910.

Two additional buildings were later constructed: the Perley Memorial in 1913 and the Preventorium in 1928. Collectively, they were known as the Royal Ottawa Sanatorium, with a total of 129 beds (pages 36 and 38). In 1935, an additional parcel of land west and north of the Perley Building was purchased to contribute to a total of 25-acres (page 42). By 1953, completion of the Infirmary Building added 135 beds (page 46) and saw the following growth in operation (page 47):

  • Enrollment of 179 patients in the occupational therapy department, which was once closed due to staff shortage.
  • A successful public school operated out of the Preventorium, taught 31 patients from grades 1 to 10.
  • Number of employees rose to 180.
  • Average inpatient care was given to 400 people per year, with 100 attending for special treatments and post-discharge supervision.

For the first time, the Royal Ottawa Sanatorium reported vacant beds in the early 1960s. With a total capacity for 289 beds, January of 1961 saw only 144 in-patients and 123 patients by December (Page 49). The Sanatorium’s primary function was to treat tuberculosis, however, with the advent of successful treatment, beds emptied and the hospital evolved to treat other illnesses and conditions. In the 1960s, the Preventorium was released for use as a mental health clinic and the Psychiatric Services was designated as a teaching hospital with the University of Ottawa (page 50). By the beginning of 1970, the facility was renamed Royal Ottawa Hospital and served the community by providing a range of emotional, psychiatric, and rehabilitative care.