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Hospital Keeps It Fresh From Plow to Plate
By Hadley Turner

The 85-bed, nonprofit New Milford Hospital in New Milford, Connecticut, might be on the smaller side, but it has big ideas for foodservice, sustainability, and patient satisfaction. In 2006, this community hospital decided to harness the healing power of good food. Since then, the hospital has transformed its dining services from so-so to out-of-this-world through an innovative initiative called Plow to Plate, which it developed in partnership with Boston-based foodservice contractor Unidine.

Plow to Plate focuses on using fresh, local food to create healthful meals that everyone will love. But it’s also a community and patient education initiative offering cooking and nutrition workshops and free and low-cost meals for seniors and cancer patients. Read on to get the scoop on the delicious meals New Milford Hospital serves up and their inspiring programming.

Plow to Plate Takes Root
The Plow to Plate program is the brainchild of Marydale DeBor, JD, then vice president of New Milford Hospital, who also was director of Planetree (a global patient-centered care advocacy, consulting, and consulting group) at the hospital; Chef Anne Gallagher, a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Culinary School in New York; and Diane D’Isidori, MD, a community pediatrician and public health advocate based in New Milford.

In October 2006, DeBor, Gallagher, and D’Isidori got together to improve the hospital’s foodservice program after DeBor became disheartened by the hospital’s subpar patient meals. They “stuck their necks out” and went directly to the hospital’s foodservice contractor, according to an interview with blogger Dana Roc. The contractor was repeatedly uncooperative, so the hospital terminated its contract and partnered with Unidine in 2008. It was love at first sight, and Unidine and New Milford Hospital got right to work. Chef Kerry Gold, director of dining service at the hospital, started as a contractor with Unidine during Plow to Plate’s official first year and said the goal was clear from the beginning: “We came in 2008 with the basis that we would be a community-focused foodservice program, buying local and sustainable when possible, and fresh for everything,” he says.

Local Food, Less Waste
According to Gold, the hospital cemented its first local farm partnership in 2009 and started its Senior Suppers program (more info below) the same year, establishing eight more farm partnerships over the next decade. During the growing season, 80% of New Milford Hospital’s produce comes from local farms, and 20% is grown on campus in tower gardens, including squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs.

New Milford Hospital also partnered with Health Care Without Harm, a global nonprofit organization that spearheads initiatives for environmentally responsible health care, in 2014 to establish a composting program, according to Gold. The hospital’s compost is sent back to its farm partners, reducing “tons of trash that would have gone into the waste stream,” Gold says.  

The hospital also focuses on reducing food waste. Michele MacDonnell, RDN, CDN, clinical nutrition manager at New Milford Hospital, who’s involved with the Plow to Plate program, says that local farmers sometimes have picked up food scraps from the hospital for their livestock. In the hospital’s cooking classes for cancer survivors, Gold has educated attendees about the importance of reducing food waste and how to cook with leftovers and food scraps, featuring recipes such as French toast made from Thanksgiving stuffing as well as frittatas and pesto incorporating vegetable and herb scraps such as cucumber peels, carrot peels, and parsley stems blended with garlic and olive oil.

Healthful—and Delicious
As it decreases its carbon footprint, New Milford Hospital continues to develop delicious and healthful recipes that patients, visitors, staff, and even New Milford residents crave and savor. The hospital’s Press Ganey scores—which measure patient satisfaction—are in the 90th percentile, with exceptional ratings for foodservice, according to MacDonnell.

“A lot of people from the town of New Milford actually come into our cafeteria to eat lunch and dinner—not just for our Senior Suppers or other programs. You would never think that people would come into a hospital for the food, but it actually happens here,” MacDonnell says.

Gold and MacDonnell burst with excitement and pride as they give examples of cafeteria menu items and Let’s Get Cooking class recipes: grilled peach and arugula salad, grilled vegetable pizza with blistered tomatoes, edamame hummus, lemon basil garlic chicken breast, shrimp etouffee, butternut squash lasagna, braised kale with spinach and tomato, pumpkin carrot soup, Mediterranean cod, quinoa stuffed peppers … the list goes on. (Apologies if you’re reading this before lunch.)

Especially popular is Wednesday—the hospital’s barbecue day. There are general medical offices in the hospital, too, and “when people walk into the building on Wednesdays they smell barbecue,” says Cindy Tyler, RN, breast care navigator at New Milford Hospital and founder of Plow to Plate’s Eating Well program (more information below). “I often hear them commenting, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in a hospital—it smells so good.’ I think it provides a humanizing aspect to health care.”

Wednesday offerings have included grilled hand-pressed hamburgers, sauerkraut pickled on site, watermelon, shrimp, salmon, quinoa veggie burgers, and chicken.

All of New Milford Hospital’s meals follow the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Nutrition Care Manual, with slight adjustments for those with diabetes, renal diseases, CVD, and other conditions. The hospital also eliminated fried foods and the cafeteria’s soda fountain.

Gold and MacDonnell, both of whom are contractors with Unidine, say that many of the recipes come from Unidine’s OH SO GOOD program, which Unidine uses to highlight its most healthful options and their appropriate portion sizes.  

Under the Plow to Plate initiative, New Milford Hospital spreads the healing power of food throughout the hospital and community through a variety of programs, including the following.

Senior Suppers
New Milford Hospital’s first community program, founded in late 2009, provides dinner—including a soup or salad, an entrée, two side dishes, coffee, and dessert—for older adults in the community for a mere $5 (the rest of the meal cost is subsidized through charitable donations, and the cost for seniors hasn’t increased in the past decade). The program runs from 4 to 6 PM Monday through Friday and is open to anyone 65 or older.

“It’s freshly prepared food—salmon, portabella quinoa stuffed mushroom—they’re getting freshly prepared food at a great discount but they’re also getting socialization and they feel comfortable coming into the hospital as well,” MacDonnell says. “If they need treatment, they already have a bit of the lay of the land.”

MacDonnell and other hospital staff receive grant funding to visit area senior centers to promote the program. One of the benefits, she says, of being able to reach out to these senior centers is that many older adults in the community, especially those living alone, may have trouble cooking fresh foods and thus rely on high-sodium convenience foods such as canned soups. “We’re on top of our chefs about using herbs and spices and not sodium in most if not all of their cooking,” MacDonnell says, a boon for older adults, many of whom are prescribed to limit their sodium intake.

Let’s Get Cooking
In 2015, New Milford Hospital received philanthropic funding to kick off a series of nutrition and cooking workshops for cancer survivors called Let’s Get Cooking. The workshops promote a plant-based diet (without omitting animal products) based on the American Institute for Cancer Research guidelines for cancer prevention.

The workshops run six times per year, and while they’ve traditionally been invitation-only for cancer survivors, the hospital is beginning to open them to more patients, such as those diagnosed with prediabetes, due to the workshops’ popularity. Let’s Get Cooking is free for cancer survivors and their caregivers, while others pay $10 per class.

Class attendees get a free meal as well as an education on different nutrition topics, including the Mediterranean diet, healthful grilling, gut health and fermented foods, healthful holiday choices, and plant-based diet basics. Gold performs a cooking demo, and attendees get to take home a copy of the recipe demonstrated and handouts on the class’s topic.

“[Gold, MacDonnell, and I] decided, why don’t we link together people who don’t really want to hear about preventing cancer through screening but who want to know that the choices they make every day make the most difference?” Tyler says. “If people can have the tools to make better choices and taste food that’s made from scratch and locally grown, we thought it would inspire them to live better after a diagnosis.”

McDonnell adds that this is one of the hospital’s most successful programs and says, “I just think it’s really nice for these patients, that they feel like there’s something they can do to further [their] survivorship, to reduce the risk of recurrence.”

Eating Well
In addition to survivors, cancer patients and their caregivers benefit greatly from New Milford Hospital’s initiatives. Through Plow to Plate’s Eating Well program, cancer patients and their caregivers can enjoy a healthful, delicious meal from the hospital’s cafeteria after each chemotherapy or radiation therapy session, to eat in or take home—free of charge.

“Eating Well is a little bit of a spin-off of the Let’s Get Cooking program,” says Tyler, who founded the program in 2017. “We educate them that these are healthful choices, made from scratch, from local farms.”

MacDonnell adds that she’s thrilled to be able to offer these patients and caregivers healthful meals, because, often, the last thing they feel like doing when they return home after treatment is cooking themselves a healthful meal.

“I’ve found that it’s been really nice for people who are having taste changes. A lot of people tell me, ‘I’m not sure what I’m going to be able to eat, and I’ll buy something or make something and then I won’t eat it,’” MacDonnell says. “I tell them to try a couple of different things so they can see what’s working for them. That way, they’re not wasting their own food dollars. They can get smaller portions of things, and, while we don’t normally offer puréed items in our cafeteria, if someone needs that, Kerry [Gold] will make it for them.”

Through the Plow to Plate initiative, New Milford Hospital also has been instrumental in developing community access to fresh foods; they helped kick off the New Milford Farmers’ Market in 2009, and the hospital cafeteria is a pick-up destination for food from a community-supported agriculture program partnership with local March Farms.

Whether it’s on campus at the hospital or out and about in the community, the Plow to Plate program fills New Milford Hospital’s and Unidine’s staff with pride.

“I’ve worked at a lot of different hospitals, and I kind of used to be embarrassed about the food, but here I’m very proud of it,” MacDonnell says. “It’s nice to hear the patients rave about the food, say how good it tastes. I think it helps them to feel more cared for. What a novel idea that food in health care should taste good and be good for you! People are sick and not feeling well, and if we’re serving them unhealthful and unappetizing food, how can we expect them to eat it and get better?”

— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today’s Dietitian and RDLounge.com, the blog written for RDs by RDs.