November 23, 2022 – From the moment you step into the huge kitchen at Northern Westchester Hospital, you’ll quickly realize that bland, processed foods aren’t on the sick list at this Mount Kisco, NY hospital that’s part of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in the state New York.
The first indicator is the aroma of apples and pears that begins to waft through the massive space, which resembles the industrial kitchen of a five-star resort. Next is the use of real earthenware and a menu that reads like a fine restaurant.
The high-energy food service team led by Andrew Cain, Michelin-starred chef at Toki, is the exact target Bruno Tesson, Vice President of Food Services and Executive Chef of Northwell, set when he joined the sprawling hospital system 5 years ago after working as a chef. Executive at the Plaza Hotel in New York City for 30 years and awarded a Michelin star at the Sonoma Mission Inn in California.
“When I arrived, we’d buy frozen food, reheat it, and then throw it away,” Tyson says of the food served at Northwell’s 21 hospitals. “We spent as little time, attention and money on food as possible, but food is health. Food is good medicine.”
The drive to apply hospitality practices to food preparation and rethink what is served throughout the Northwell system began in 2017 when Northwell CEO Michael Dowling tasked Sven Gerlinger, Chief Experience Officer, with finding the right person to reinvent the way hospital food is obtained, primed and painted.
At that time, Northwell patients’ food scores ranged from the ninth percentile to the 50th percentile for quality and taste. With 21 hospitals serving more than 2 million people annually, that’s a lot of bad food.
“Our CEO has received a lot of letters, including one where a patient wrote, ‘We will not give this food to a dog,’” Tyson says. “The last thing a patient needs to worry about is the quality of the food when they are trying to recover.”
When hospital food is so bad, Gerlinger says, it puts a burden on the family to bring in food from outside to feed the patient.
“This adds more stress that family members shouldn’t have,” he says. “It also takes away from the overall patient experience that we want people to have when they are cared for by our amazing clinical staff.”
In the years since Tison appointed 15 new executive chefs, nine Northwell hospitals are now in the 94th percentile or greater, a feat no other health system in the country has achieved.
It didn’t affect the system’s bottom line, even when Tison replaced refrigerators with refrigerators, removed all fryers, and replaced sources of added sugar with healthier options. Plus, he’s since partnered with two artisan pastry companies, a fair-trade coffee roaster, hospitals serving hormone-free meat, and a partnership with several organic farms is in the works.
“We spent less than $500,000 last year because we don’t get rid of anything,” Tyson says. “Serving pre-processed and prepared food is actually more expensive than buying the raw product. You just need work and skill to turn it into delicious food, and that was what was missing in our hospitals.”
Gerlinger says even brewing coffee has been saving cost, to the tune of $250,000 across the organization.
“We used to serve the most terrible coffee,” Gerlinger says. “It was frozen in containers and we heated it up and gave it to patients and it tasted like burnt water. That was the norm.”
For Northwell leaders, food and nutrition has been committed – and will never be compromised.
“We pay competitive wages and pay more for our executive chefs, but that’s the only investment we’ve made,” Gerlinger says. “The return is much greater.”
In every possible way, leadership at Northwell Health is poised to change how food is delivered to patients from this point forward.
“We want to show all the ways food is the foundation of good health,” Gerlinger says. “We’ve made it our mission to take away from the bad reputation hospital food has and turn it into fresh, delicious food that’s cooked with love.”
Along with these improvements in what is offered, the team plans to build an educational facility with an apprenticeship program to train chefs as well as offer hands-on training for staff and patients, and cooking classes for the community.
For example, in some hospitals, new mothers and food-insecure patients are discharged from the hospital with a basket of produce grown in on-site gardens along with tips on how to eat healthy, all with the aim of educating the community.
Finally, Northwell’s patients spoke up—their stomachs.
“We see it this way: With the meals we provide, we have this opportunity to transport patients into another world, a world where they start to feel hungry and actually look forward to meals while they’re recovering,” says Tyson. “It’s gotten to the point where patients don’t want to leave — the food here is so good.”