If you’ve ever had to stay in a hospital, you may recall that the best thing about the hospital meals is that they make you want to get well quick and go home to your own kitchen. Often bland and rubbery, or salty and fried, hospital food is exactly the opposite of what you’d think people need to get their health back.
Until now. Thanks to a rooftop farm right on the grounds, dedicated students, faculty and staff and a dynamic new executive chef, Stony Brook University Hospital is moving away from frozen, fried foods. Now, the hospital is providing healthier meals that incorporate vegetables so fresh, patients can see dinner growing just outside their windows.
The Stony Brook Heights Rooftop Farm started up in July 2011 as part of a New York State Department of Health “Healthy Heart Program Grant,” which allowed the Nutrition Division of the Department of Family Medicine at the School of Medicine to start up 10 community gardens in low-income areas of Suffolk County.
“When we had those up and running, we decided we wanted a model farm for the community to be able to see,” says Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, associate clinical professor of Family Medicine, executive director of the Nutrition Division of Stony Brook Medicine and director of the Dietetic Internship Program. She and Iman Marghoob, the community gardens coordinator for the Department of Family Medicine, located a likely spot, the rooftop raised beds that were basically just boxes of grass on the fourth-floor roof. They got the necessary permissions and started digging and amending the soil for an 800-square-foot micro-farm.
Marghoob, who holds a degree in landscape design, is a registered dietician and an avid home gardener. “But that was mostly ornamentals,” she says, from under a floppy hat, hands full of garden tools caked with soil. “That’s what I brought to the table, but what I gained was a great deal more.”
That first summer they got a late start, but thanks to advice from Scott Chaskey, director of Quail Hill Farm and adviser on the grant, as well as the volunteer labor of family, friends and faculty, they managed to pull 400 pounds of tomatoes, basil, peppers, broccoli, cabbage and herbs from their little patch of ground. “It was very successful considering we got started so late, so it was very encouraging,” says Marghoob. And the farm started a groundswell of activity that continues to build momentum.
In 2012, their second season, the farm grew to 2,200 square feet and produced 725 pounds of food— almost double the first year. Faculty from the sustainability studies and nutrition departments began to incorporate the farm into their syllabi. Students fulfilled course requirements by volunteering. An anonymous donation gave short-term stipends to interns. The university allowed the growers to take over greenhouse space to grow their own seedlings (and develop sustainability beyond the life of the grant). Plant sales and other fund-raisers began to bring in needed money for expansion. And the new executive chef of the 600-bed hospital, John Mastacciuola, and the food services director, Michael West, got on board with enthusiasm.
“When I got here (in November 2011) so much in the hospital was frozen food,” says Mastacciuola. “So we developed a game plan to go to healthy meals. We took fried food off the menu and included more baked fish, grilled chicken. We are going to 2 percent sodium across the board, low-sodium sauce, for example. We took soda off the menu.”
As the situation in the kitchen continued (and continues) to evolve, the chef got a visit from the growers.
“About a year ago Josephine and Iman came to me and asked me if I would be interested in produce from the farm,” he says. “I jumped on the opportunity to have fresh vegetables for the patients.”
Mastacciuola and his staff of 60 prepare between 1,800 and 2,000 individual patient meals per day. And in the growing season as he makes the meal plan, he checks what the growers have brought in and incorporates it into the offerings.
Both the growers and the chef say that they are learning what will “sell” and what patients will skip.
Tomatoes, yes. Cucumbers? Bring ’em on. Radishes, definitely. Kale, not so much.
“We found the lettuce we were growing didn’t hold well enough,” says Connolly-Schoonen. “We have to refine what we’re growing.”
According to chef John Mastacciuola, his most successful farm-based meal has been sautéed Swiss chard over whipped turnips topped with marinated grilled chicken. “It’s our version of chicken paillard,” he says.
And if it already sounds like a win-win situation, there is yet another population that is reaping unexpected rewards. Amy Stofenberg, 24, of Smithtown, is a recent Stony Brook graduate in sustainability studies. A college research grant bought her the chance to spend last summer on the farm. Today she is looking at a career in agriculture and/or outdoor education. She continues to volunteer at the farm. “To me it’s a big thing, connecting with the Earth,” she says. “We’re all a little bit crazy because we don’t work closely with the Earth.”
“As a future almost-dietician I have always tried to be healthy,” says Nicole. “But this gives me more appreciation for vegetables.”
Jorge agrees. “I have a much better appreciation for where food comes from and how much work is involved. It takes a lot of work to grow vegetables!”
There are big plans for this little space. While there is a lot of forward momentum, there are still not enough vegetables to reach every patient every day. And while some faculty are working closely with the farm, it is not yet a campus-wide initiative.
“We want to fully integrate the farm into the hospital food service and into the two academic programs,” says Josephine Connolly-Schoonen.
And with the enthusiasm of so many players, it seems that they are well on their way. And for a lot of patients, mealtime is now something to look forward to!