Hospitals aren’t known for their world-class food, but that didn’t stop the staff at Stony Brook University Hospital from aiming for excellence. With a focus on food as a recovery tool, the staff decided to make healthy, delicious meals a focal point of their service over five years ago.
Their efforts were recognized in a recently released survey by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which polled 262 hospitals nationwide, ultimately ranking 24 of them.
“The food is our front line in getting people happier and healthier,” says executive chef John Mastacciuola, because good food can “jump start the healing process.”
Mastacciuola, who works with dietitians, sees the hospital meal program as a way to show patients that eating healthy doesn’t have to taste bad. “They are teaching them how to eat better and we showing them how to eat better,” he says.
An exciting facet of the hospital’s food program is their organic, rooftop garden, which Edible wrote about in our inaugural issue in 2013. The executive director of Stony Brook Medicine’s Nutrition Division, Josephine Connolly-Schoonen, spearheaded the hospital’s farm program in 2011 with money from a state grant. The first iteration of the farm was a 400-square-foot garden on the fourth floor deck of one of Stony Brook University Hospital’s smaller buildings. In its first year, it grew 800 pounds of produce.
Admitting that only a minuscule portion of the food served to patients is from the garden, Connolly-Schoonen says that the garden is a “proof of concept.”
[The garden] yields more than 1,300 pounds of vegetables, with over 20 varieties.
The biggest difficulty is fielding a staff to maintain the garden, which is now 1,242 square feet. It yields more than 1,300 pounds of vegetables, with over 20 varieties. She largely relies on Stony Brook University’s nutrition, medical and sustainability studies students to volunteer, as well as local high school students.
“It is largely symbolic,” says Connolly-Schoonen. But, it goes a long way to showing that “what we eat has a profound impact to help you recover.”
She hopes to involve children in the project, who have to be hospitalized for longer periods of time. Obviously, this would be with the consent of their doctors.
“The hospital administration has been so supportive,” says Connolly-Schoonen, who is very happy the hospital’s efforts have been recognized nationally.
“We always look for natural ways to add flavor,” says Mastacciuola, whose staff caters to 30 different types of diets, from kosher to gluten-free. “We try to make the same food you’ll eat at home but healthier.”
In addition to cooking with lots of fresh herbs and vegetables, Mastacciuola is adamant about baking or grilling instead of frying. When he first arrived five years ago, he took out all the fryers. “It is not just a diet choice. It is a healthy lifestyle choice. I find myself doing it at home too,” he adds.
One of his favorite parts of the job is cooking for the pediatric patients. Since some will be in the hospital for a long time, he wants to make comfort food that is also healthy. Currently, he is working on a gluten-free flat bread and hopes to debut it within a month.
Mastacciuola had cancer as a child, and when he interviewed for the position he said he wanted to make food an important part of the service offered at Stony Brook University Hospital. He says, “I know what it is like to be on the receiving side.”