Hospitals fighting climate change and disease with plants

  • Europe

A blog post by Paola Hernández Olivan, Food Projects and Policy Officer – HCWH Europe


Paola visited Montefiore Moses Campus in New York City earlier this year to learn more about their innovative and sustainable food service.

Located in New York City and the Hudson Valley, the Montefiore Health System serves over three million people. Three of their eleven hospitals are in the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City. It is here that Montefiore provides the majority of its community-based primary care and specialty ambulatory services. The Bronx is home to nearly 1.5 million people, where the rate of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are much higher compared to citywide and national averages.

With 800 patient beds, Montefiore’s Moses Campus serves approximately 2,800 meals per day to both patients and staff. The Moses Campus is an anchor institution because of its commitment to apply their social and economic influence, and a number of resources to address the health of their communities through its food service.

In 2010, Montefiore updated its food strategy in reaction to the large amount of sugary beverages and deep-fried foods available in cafeterias; whereas now you can now find a great variety of healthy and environmentally-friendly options.

This change in menus is largely attributed to Dr Robert Ostfeld, a cardiologist at Montefiore who has been researching the impact of food choices on our health. He found that an increase in plant nutrition was the most impactful so included this information when interacting with cardiovascular patients. Dr. Ostfled has observed that the majority of his patients lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and blood pressure, and improved their energy levels when adopting a plant-based diet - even reversing type 2 diabetes.

Montefiore demonstrates several opportunities that European healthcare facilities can replicate to help build community health, protect the environment, and increase access to fresh and sustainable food.

Encouraged by these results and wanting to reach a larger patient population, Ostfeld created the Montefiore Einstein Cardiac Wellness Program together with his colleague - registered dietician, Lauren Graf. This outpatient programme aims to prevent and reverse heart disease with a whole food, plant-based diet comprised of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, pulses, small amounts of nuts and avocado, as well as dairy alternatives. Meals are prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients as opposed to processed foods - a key factor in achieving promising health outcomes. In this programme, patients learn about the benefits of the diet and are encouraged to integrate plant-based meals into their normal routines as much or as little as they wish, noting that any increased in plant-based produce will improve dietary nutrition.

The success of this programme from both patients and food service users demonstrates that education plays a key role in transforming the lives of patients and improving and enriching the community at large. Patients receive counselling and advice on purchasing plant-based ingredients and meal planning; a family member or friend is also encouraged to attend the sessions to help the patient continue the programme at home. Employees and visitors of the cafeteria receive similar information from posters displayed in dining areas that explain the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

To increase access to the necessary ingredients for a health-promoting plant-based diet, a number of initiatives have been put in place at the Moses Campus, notably they host a weekly farmers market within the hospital grounds. Stocked and run by the hospital food service department, these markets feature cooking demonstrations using ingredients available from the market, as well as information on how to properly store and prepare different ingredients.

Whilst visiting the hospital, I took a delicious peanut butter chickpea pie for my lunch.

Peanut butter chickpea pie 

  • 1 can (15 oz) chickpeas
  • 1/2 cup peanut or almond butter
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup or honey
  • 1/3 cup chocolate chips
  • 2 tbsp coarse sea salt, for sprinkling 
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp salt

In addition to the farmers markets, Montefiore works with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to adopt the New York City Food Standards: evidence-based nutrition criteria to improve the nutritional content of food and beverages offered in cafeterias, vending machines, and patients meals. The hospital also hosts and supports the Green Carts programme - mobile food carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables in target neighbourhoods with low levels of fruit and vegetable consumption.
For the dedicated staff at the Montefiore Health System, “community health” extends far beyond the Bronx and encapsulates the entire planet. Montefiore has taken tremendous strides towards making their food service facilities more sustainable, such as composting food waste and installing biodigesters in order to weight the amount of food waste they produce prior to and post-consumption.

They are also eager to measure the environmental impact of the health system’s purchasing choices and overall meat reduction. They believe that the healthcare sector must use its annual buying power to reduce climate impacts from agriculture, and serve foods that help protect of the climate and people. Montefiore uses tools and resources provided by Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm US, to track not only meat purchases but also ingredients produced locally that offer a more sustainable option. All chickens purchased by the system, for example, are raised without routine antibiotics.

Montefiore demonstrates several opportunities that European healthcare facilities can replicate to help build community health, protect the environment, and increase access to fresh and sustainable food.