By Judy LaBelle, Glynwood Senior Fellow
If you have ever been hospitalized, or have visited a hospital patient, you likely have a story to tell about the incongruity of sophisticated medical care and seemingly thoughtless food service. A slab of mystery meat on the patient’s tray, with a sugary drink on the side; a cheeseburger and fries at the only food service in the lobby. Sound familiar?
But happily this is an experience that is changing rapidly and for the better. More and more hospitals are recognizing the importance of serving healthier food to their patients, employees and guests and actively supporting the growth of sustainable regional food systems.
In part this may reflect the growing impact of the food movement. Patients are consumers after all and are becoming more vocal about their desire for better food while hospitalized. It also reflects the growing understanding of the profound connection between food and health, at a time when hospitals are under severe pressure to manage and reduce health care costs.
For example, a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There) drew the connection between food choice and cardiovascular disease. It concluded that nearly 1/3 of the deaths in America each year are attributable to cardiovascular disease (particularly stroke and coronary heart disease). More than 127,000 of these deaths could be prevented each year and $17 billion in medical costs saved if Americans increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Glynwood has long encouraged the recognition of the important connections between health and food. Since 2004, it has often used the Harvest Award to recognize people and organizations across the country for exemplary work “at the intersection of good food and health.” Winners have ranged from b-Healthy! – a nonprofit helping low-income urban youth in New York and California make the connection between food and personal and community health, to Kaiser Permanente – for its leadership in implementing a Comprehensive Food Policy designed to promote health by promoting healthy food choices for the eight million-plus members in its heath plan.
Now Glynwood is pleased to be working with the Hudson Valley Hospital Center and its “Harvest for Health” initiative, which “focuses on the importance of food in wellness and recuperation” and encourages consumption of more fresh, regional food and less processed food. According to President John C. Federspiel, “Hudson Valley Hospital Center believes it has a responsibility to incorporate nutrition into every medical care plan of every diagnosis treated, and to hopefully discharge patients with a better understanding of why their diet is so very important to their health.” Cardiologists and some internists and pediatricians are prescribing the new services as part of their patients’ regime of care.
The newest element of the Hospital’s initiative is a demonstration kitchen to be opened later this fall. The Hospital’s annual gala, to be held at Glynwood on September 27th, will benefit the new kitchen, which will be used for cooking classes and demonstrations with nutrition/health themes. Participants will be introduced to general kitchen know-how, including knife skills, as well as basic recipes. Michael Bulger, Coordinator of the Hospital’s Culinary Wellness Center, explains: “It’s fine to tell people to eat more fresh food, but even breaking down a vegetable can be a formidable task if the person has no kitchen skills.”
The kitchen will also be the home base for the Young Chefs of Hudson Valley, a program designed to tie into cooking’s “cool capital” among younger people. Participants will source ingredients from the public Farmers’ Market that is held twice each month on the Hospital grounds (and includes Glynwood’s produce). The Hospital will track changes in the participants’ relevant health markers and food preferences from the beginning to the end of the semester.
Recently the Hospital took on the complex challenge of serving more fresh, regional food to its patients by selecting Cura Hospitality to manage its food service. The selection was based on Cura’s specific commitment to regional sourcing and cooking from scratch. For the Hospital, Cura’s plans include sourcing from farmers who participate in the Market.
Many people assume that it is too expensive for institutions to transition to more healthful food. But the Hospital found that working with Cura will not result in a material increase in cost.
Meanwhile, the produce from the Hospital’s two year-old organic garden, which is tended by volunteers, will continue to be provided (along with recipes) to patients being treated for cancer. Part of the garden will also be devoted to the cultivation of medicinal herbs.
Two past Harvest Award winners have been assisting HVMC’s recent efforts and helping other medical institutions adopt similar practices: Marydale deBor was recognized in 2009 as the founder/coordinator of Plow to Plate, a program through which New Milford Hospital led a coalition with more than 150 members devoted to encouraging health through nutrition, education and promotion of local food. Jamie Moore, now Director of Sourcing and Sustainability for Eat’n Park and Cura Hospitality, accepted a 2009 Award on behalf of Eat’n Park and its Farm Source initiative. Farm Source was created so the organization could meet its goal of purchasing 30% of the food for its 75 restaurants locally in season. It now partners with more than 200 local growers, family-owned farmers and food producers within a 125-mile radius of Eat’n Park’s service area, which has grown to include more than 50 senior living communities and hospitals in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Glynwood’s President Kathleen Frith, a member of the Hospital kitchen’s Advisory Committee, and other Glynwood staff look forward to exploring additional ways that they can support the medical sector in recognizing the connection between good food and good health.