The Big Apple goes plant-based

New York City hospitals see success with making plant-based items the default choice on patient menus.
plant-based meals
Registered dietitians hold up a plant-based version of sanchoco. / Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Eleven hospitals in New York City are now serving plant-based food to patients as the default option, and so far, it's going over really well.

This shift at NYC Health + Hospitals was gradual to ensure a smooth transition. Foodservice provider Sodexo started offering Meatless Mondays to patients in 2019, then debuted plant-based lunches by default last March.

It slowly began rolling out plant-based dinners in September, and all hospitals were on board by December.

The move required a lot of R&D and brainstorming among chefs, dietitians and other stakeholders at NYC Health + Hospitals. Sodexo team members also came in to facilitate and provide expertise. But one of the biggest challenges was marketing the change to patients and medical personnel.

"We did a ton of education and sharing with our patients, nursing staff and frontline staff about the importance of making plants the center of the plate," says Samantha Morgenstern, senior director of nutrition services for acute care at Sodexo.

Sodexo also ran a plant-based roadshow, which toured all 11 hospitals, featuring food tastings and a presentation explaining the science behind plant-based foods. It also ran tastings for the nursing units so the staff could taste the patient food.

“We wanted there to be a buzz in the hospitals," says Mercedes Redwood, assistant vice president of managed services. That included computer announcements prior to the launch and buttons worn by all foodservice staff touting the program.

"To be successful, you have to spread wide across and deep in an organization," Redwood says.

Marketing was especially key, she says, because many patients know very little about plant-based meals. When patients are admitted, they receive a letter from the foodservice department welcoming them to the plant-based menu. Then, after being discharged, they take home a plant-based recipe book with 40 recipes.

But an important aspect of getting them on board are the foodservice associates who foster a connection between dining services and patients. An associate visits each patient three times a day to verbally read the menu. At this time, they talk to patients about the benefits of plant-based options and give them alternatives if they don't like the choices provided. If none of the plant-based meals appeal to them, they can order one with meat.

"We've created very specific scripts to describe the food to patients," says Morgenstern. "We don't use the words 'vegan,' 'vegetarian' or 'default.' There's been a lot of thought into how this has been presented to our patients, knowing we would have to meet them where they were."

It's not just the foodservice associates visiting patients, either—dietitians also do the rounds, as does the executive chef. In fact, Sodexo is bringing more chefs into the hospitals, and patients’ bedsides, to increase their visibility.

Sodexo road showOne of the stops on Sodexo's plant-based roadshow / Photo courtesy of Sodexo

"There's been such a negative connotation about hospital food, but by bringing an executive chef to a bedside and showing them the talent is there to bring this food, [it] elevates the experience," Morgenstern says.

The dining experience is further elevated by the foodservice associates’ wait-staff uniforms and the serving ware, which was all replaced during the switch to plant-based meals. The team also changes up the china depending on the dish being served to create the best presentation possible.

Patients in the system’s hospitals have welcomed the plant-based foods, with 50% to 60% of them opting for these dishes. And satisfaction is "well over 90%," Morgenstern says.

The big-picture goal is not just to encourage patients to eat plant-based during their stay but to educate them about how they can make changes to their diet once they're discharged, including what less meat means for their health and how that can make a positive impact regarding climate change.

For the plant-based menus, the Sodexo team tries to offer dishes from a variety of cultures. A popular dish is sancocho, a Hispanic stew that traditionally features meat; a black-eyed pea casserole served over cornbread with plant-based cheese; a pasta Bolognese that includes a variety of mushrooms; and a jackfruit burrito.

A pad Thai dish and edamame falafel worked less well, but the foodservice associates request feedback from the patients after meals and take that to the kitchen so the chefs can improve and refine.

All food served at NYC Health + Hospitals is prepared in a cook-chill commissary, and between last March and the end of 2022, as the program was rolling out, the foodservice department served almost 350,00 plant-based meals.

Per patient meal, there's also about a 59-cent savings with the plant-based foods, Morgenstern says.



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