From the Field: Miracle in New Milford

 

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Turenne helped DeBor draw up a request for proposals (RFP) to find a new vendor to turn things around in the New Milford Hospital kitchen. The RFP included explicit prohibitions against fried foods, processed foods and high fructose corn syrup. Eventually the contract went to Unidine. As DeBor recalls, it was a rough transition: First, they had to part ways with their old vendor, then came six months of removing deep-fat fryers, improving on badly designed workspaces and retraining kitchen staff to cook from scratch. But by the end of those six months, New Milford’s rating with Press Ganey, a national organization that surveys patient satisfaction for hospitals, went from the 30th percentile to the 99th. That’s a big deal for a hospital that wants to attract new patients.

“And talk about reducing waste!” says DeBor. “We don’t have all that packaging, and we don’t throw food away. Any unused fresh food goes in the stockpot for the chicken soup the next day—you know, like you do at home.”

New Milford Hospital now has six local farms growing for it. To the extent that they serve meat—and mostly they don’t—they try to serve pork, which is raised without growth hormones and nontherapeutic antibiotics. Employees and visitors like the new food, too; cafeteria numbers have gone up, and so has revenue.

Through DeBor’s “über-organizer/administrative” efforts, the hospital has managed to fund all the extra food initiatives through outside sources; the current hospital food budget—around $850,000 per year—is about the same as it was before the healthy changes. That’s largely, says DeBor, because they’ve eliminated so much waste.

So, fine: New Milford took on food and won. But why bother? Why go to all the trouble of breaking up with their old vendor, ripping out their old kitchen, retraining their staff for the sake of a few vegetables? No one expects any great shakes from hospital food anyway.

“I looked at this place,” recalls DeBor, “and I thought, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ I moved up here from the city for personal reasons after 9/11, and sort of fell into this job. It was part of building a life here. I took it on because food policy in this country is making entire populations of people sick, and the poor and black and brown among us even sicker. It’s shameful. People love food. It says something about their culture—it’s a gift, it’s warmth, and it’s the easiest thing to fix.”

We leave our little boardroom for a tour of the cafeteria and kitchen. On the line today are two soups: chicken and rice, and sweet potato, corn and kale. There’s an orzo and quinoa salad, an herb-crusted salmon dish, and an open-faced turkey ciabatta sandwich. Inside the double doors to the kitchen, a massive pot of soup stands simmering. Two boxes of local kale and cauliflower still sparkle from being washed. The retail menu rotation for the week is posted on a bulletin board: Tomorrow’s lunch features roasted plum tomato soup, or potato leek if you prefer. There’s Mediterranean ravioli in an eggplant-chick pea-rosemary-cherry tomato sauce. Or you could opt for the portobello burger with Gorgonzola and charred red onion.

Out behind the kitchen is the kitchen garden. There’s basil and parsley and sage. Fresh lavender for the hospital’s signature lavender scones. And spilling over the wire fence is a bean plant from which the chef harvested two gallons just this morning.
New Milford is a small hospital, with fewer than 100 licensed beds. But this new food culture is turning people’s heads, and it makes DeBor very happy. “You hear people saying, ‘You cannot believe the food at the hospital.’ And that’s exactly what I wanted them to say.”
 

From the Field: Miracle in New Milford

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