When sustainability meets cuisine on behalf of patient care

By Maria Fernandez | Emory Report | Sept. 1, 2016

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Nestled behind Emory University Orthopaedics and Spine Hospital, a small garden provides a bounty of organic produce — part of an overall effort that weaves together Emory’s commitment to sustainability and high quality, flavorful food for Emory Healthcare patients and families. Here, Arlene Woods, assistant director of Food and Nutrition Services at Wesley Woods, helps with the harvest.

“Taste that, Jack. That’s the taste of sunshine.”

Isaac Crawford, sous chef at Emory University Hospital (EUH), squats down and gently hands over the orange and gold-streaked cherry tomato to his two-year-old son, Jack. Standing in the tangle of towering tomato plants, father and son sample the juiciness of a fresh-picked tomato, grown in the nutrient-dense Georgia red clay as the hot sun beats down on their heads and the buzz of summer crickets, bees and cicadas provide the background soundtrack.

The little boy bites into the tomato as juice squirts out across the dirt and down the front of his shirt. The giant smile that spreads across his face shows how much he enjoys the sweetness of the treat.

“Never have been much of a tomato person,” says David Horning, grinning and wiping back damp, silvery strands from his forehead. Horning, the assistant director of Food and Nutrition Services at EUH, coordinated this morning’s roundup. “But, you just can’t beat the taste of these tomatoes. Can’t imagine eating store-bought after eating these.”

This tomato patch is special. Nestled in the acreage behind Emory University Orthopaedics and Spine Hospital (EUOSH), this small yet mighty garden provides an amazing bounty of organic, sustainably raised produce used in the preparation of patient meals. After a week of record-setting rains following a spell of incredibly high temperatures, this little garden was bursting at the seams with tomatoes, green beans, herbs and more. In addition, muscadine vines are grown at EUOSH and EUH.

A crew of volunteers have shown up this Saturday morning to help, including Dr. Bryce Gartland, CEO for EUH, EUOSH and Emory University Hospital at Wesley Woods, and the youngest members of the Gartland farm team, Ava (age 11), Airleas (age 9) and Jones (age 7). The kids take their responsibilities seriously — carefully inspecting the vegetables to choose the very best ones for harvest and helping each other carry the crates to the front of the garden once full.

Last week, tomatoes like the ones from the EUOSH garden were celebrated in tasting events across the Emory system as part of the Better Choices initiative and to help raise awareness of good fuel for the body in support of the 2016 Move More Challenge. Members of the EUH Food and Nutrition Services team joined forces with Bon Appetit dining to share tomato-based recipes with physicians, faculty, staff and students at the Aug. 23 Emory Farmers Market outside Cox Hall.

The garden is part of an overall effort that weaves together Emory’s commitment to sustainability and high quality, flavorful food for Emory Healthcare patients and families. Now in its third year, the garden continues to grow, even as the farm team experiences hiccups along the way.

“This year’s harvest is even bigger than last year’s,” says Horning. “Having the irrigation system installed this year makes a huge difference.” Of course, they’re still working on how to safely transport the irrigation water to the field while successfully dodging the blades of lawnmowers, and Horning has had to do emergency runs to the home improvement store to buy hoses to keep the water flowing.

Improving patient dining

The garden is just one of the many initiatives the Food and Nutrition Services team has going on to improve the dining experience. Pastured Poultry Week was July 11 – 18, and, if you’re feeling bad because you forgot to send your annual Pastured Poultry Week cards, don’t worry. The chefs at Emory University Hospital took care of the celebrating for you.

Using pasture-raised chicken from White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, executive chef Michael Bacha and his team produced a batch of chicken and rice soup, every bit of which was made from scratch — including the 75 gallons of chicken stock they made. Homemade stock is critical, as it is typically lower in sodium content and higher in nutrients and minerals.

Also, with the chickens roaming freely in a pasture, the growth rates are slower and there is less need for routine antibiotics to maintain the health of the animals. Routine antibiotic use in animal agriculture is tied to the increase in antibiotic resistance in human infections. The locally grown chickens also minimize environmental impact, not only in terms of waste, but the associated environmental impact of transportation.

That focus on the impact on our overall health is something the Food and Nutrition Services team takes seriously. “The pastured birds that are delivered to Emory Healthcare may not enjoy all the fame and glamor that our amazing Atlanta chefs offer up, but they serve a very meaningful purpose in our hospital," Bacha says.

That purpose extends to other areas, as well. In addition to the grass-fed beef from White Oak Pastures that the Emory University Hospital team uses to prepare its burgers and meatloaf, visitors to the cafeteria might spot signs for Pearson Farms, Atlanta Fresh Greek Yogurt and Dreaming Cow Creamery — all local producers of produce and dairy goods.

Earlier this year, the hospital began offering coffee that is roasted locally here in Decatur, and grown on a family-owned farm in Nicaragua. They first started offering it in the cafeteria, but recently began serving it as part of patient menus on the floors. The coffee is sustainably grown, with the farm achieving Rainforest Alliance and USDA Organic certifications.

The coffee is also shade grown — an important distinction as the coffee bean plant is a shade-loving plant, so maintaining its natural environment requires less water, minimizes erosion and supports the biodiversity of the forests surrounding the farm. That means that the beans often enjoy a richer depth of flavor – in wine culture, this is often called “terroir,” where the soil and climate influence the flavor and aroma of the fruit.

For years, hospital food has been the topic of jokes, ranking only slightly better than airplane food in most people’s consciousness. But this dedicated and inventive team of chefs and dietitians are turning that reputation on its head. If you haven’t been by one of our cafeterias lately, come on by. You might be surprised by what you taste.