From the Field: Miracle in New Milford
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Marydale DeBor greets me at the door of her New Milford Hospital office, her dachshund Ticho barking out her own welcome from within. I’ve come here as a Canadian family doctor interested in hospital food. I’m dismayed by what I’ve seen in most institutions in my country—food that is too packaged, too lifeless, too fried—and have read about this small hospital doing things right in New Milford. I’ve come to see for myself.
Within moments of sitting down with me, DeBor smooths her bright blue jacket and levels her gaze. “We’re pretty radical about this,” she says. “We consider good food part of the scope of practice of medicine. It makes me so angry, what we’re feeding people. We’re making people sick. It’s just so completely immoral.”
Sounds like I’ve come to the right place.
New Milford Hospital began its road to good food back in 2005, when DeBor, a lawyer and activist in the field of women’s health, moved to town from New York City and was hired as the hospital’s vice president in the Department of External Affairs. Not long after, the hospital also hired a new CEO, Dr. Joseph Frolkis, who just happened to work in the field of preventive cardiology. Sensing an opportunity, DeBor knocked on his door and asked if she could do something about the food. His reply: “Absolutely.”
She teamed up with pediatrician Diane D’Isidori and chef Anne Gallagher at the September Connecticut Farmland Trust event that celebrates local farmers and local food. “We’d all been very upset with what we’d been seeing with pediatric patients, with these increasing obesity rates and type II diabetes,” recalls DeBor. (According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of every six Americans between ages 2 and 19 was obese in 2009.) “So we said, ‘You know what? We just have to start.’”
Their first step was to get to know the local farmers. In 2007, they got together with the Silo Cooking School at nearby Hunt Hill Farm and created a series of classes co-taught by a farmer, a chef, and a physician, nurse or dietician. “The farmer would bring in a central ingredient for whatever was on the menu,” says DeBor. “Students would cook the food, and the guy who ran our prevention clinic for cardiac disease would talk about why it is essential to eat this way. People loved it.”
They had so much success with adults, they then moved on to the kids that pediatrician Diane D’Isidori was so worried about, and Youth Chef Advocates was born. It’s a program for public school kids in seventh and ninth grades involved with the local youth agency. “They’re not the jocks and overachievers—put it that way,” says DeBor. They started with 22 kids, and offered a nine-month program that took them out on a boat to see how scallops live, and are caught and processed, and on a wagon ride to see how farms work. Each trip, they’d bring back their harvest and learn what to do with it.
“They all wear proper white chef’s outfits, which are to be clean and pressed for every class,” explains DeBor. “They have professional knife kits, and they really learn how to be in the kitchen. They cannot have their iPod on, they cannot have their cell phone. And they present the meal. They come out, explain the menu, where the ingredients are sourced from, make eye contact, speak politely. So they also learn respect, and to really love these farmers.”
Finally it was time to move on to making changes in the hospital. Not being familiar with hospital food purchasing herself, DeBor hired John Turenne to help. Turenne now heads a company called Sustainable Food Systems, but a few years back, as DeBor tells it, he was executive chef at Yale College when Alice Waters’—yes, that Alice Waters—daughter was a student there.
“She was unimpressed with the food,“ says DeBor, “so she did an Alice Waters and flipped out, went and saw the president and stomped her feet—was generally outraged. The president calls up the chef and says, ‘I have a parent here who wants to talk to you.’ So John walks in and his jaw drops when he sees who’s there. He and Waters started a pilot project in the college to improve the food, and soon the other kids were counterfeiting their IDs to get into his cafeteria.”