Valley Bounty: Cooley Dickinson Hospital
Published February 25 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
At Cooley Dickinson, food brings joy and helps heal
By Jacob Nelson
FOR THE GAZETTE
As day breaks each morning, Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton is already a hive of activity. Doctors and nurses on overnight shifts trade places with daytime colleagues, procedures are prepped, and support staff arrive. They’re all there to help patients get better, and while medical support is primary, that’s not the only thing that matters.
“Food can be medicine too,” says Executive Chef Gary Weiss. “Not only in the literal sense, but also as a source of comfort. And that helps with healing.”
Weiss and his team prepare three meals for upwards of 300 patients each day, plus another 250 diners in their onsite cafeteria. Large institutions like this are important players in any local food system, as their decisions about what to cook and where to buy it create ripples in the local economy much bigger than any one person or household. At Cooley Dickinson, a place where patient health and safety must come first, buying local is one of many factors they consider.
Recognizing food’s power to aid or hinder recovery, the hospital’s Food and Nutrition Services team consists of food service staff, registered dietitians, and nutrition assistants working together to keep patients well-fed.
“The opening cook arrives at 5 am” says Weiss. “Folks in the diet and nutrition office are in around 6, making sure menus are accurate and taking new patients’ orders, and most other staff are in by 7.”
Preparation for the patients’ breakfast at 7:30 is a team effort – double-checking dietary requirements, assembling meals, and delivering them. Then trays are retrieved, snacks are stocked, and they begin the cycle anew for lunch.
Prepping food for hospital patients is a little different than cooking for a dinner party or in a restaurant. Here, transparency, consistency and tracking all ingredients are central. “Everyone has to follow a standardized recipe,” Weiss says. “All the nutritional information for each dish is logged in the computer so we know the exact amounts of everything, and potential allergens are noted too.”
That attention to detail traces all the way back to food purchasing. Because patient menus are nutritionally exact “we can’t just substitute ingredients in a dish,” Weiss explains. “If we run out of something or can’t get it from our usual supplier, we have to find the same product elsewhere.”
Separate from patient food prep, requirements at the hospital’s cafeteria are less strict. Open from 6:30 am to 2:30 pm daily it serves mostly staff, but all visitors are welcome. “Here the cooks have a chance to play,” Weiss explains. It’s often a testing ground for new patient meals.
What’s on the menu at Cooley Dickinson Hospital? While chefs are often trying new dishes to keep things interesting, “comfort food is what patients in the hospital are looking for, we’ve found,” says Weiss, “so we do a lot of that.”
“We make our own meatballs for spaghetti and meatballs,” he continues. “All our soups for patients are homemade. Our beef marsala is one of the most popular dishes, interestingly. Folks tell us the flavor is excellent.”
When possible, excess food is donated to Rachel’s Table, a program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts dedicated to alleviating hunger and reducing food waste. Meanwhile, pre- and post-meal food scraps are composted, along with compostable dishware from the cafeteria.
When it comes to sourcing food from within New England, Weiss says meat is the easiest to find. The supply is fairly consistent throughout the season and the hospital has good relationships with distributors, who act as middlemen between them and supplying farms.
“Arnold’s Meats is one of our main distributors,” Weiss says, “They do a custom grind for us where local ground beef is mixed with mushrooms. That’s one little thing we do to be a little greener and healthier.”
Much of their turkey comes from Misty Knoll Farms in Vermont. In the past, they’ve also ordered turkeys straight from Diemand Farm in Wendell for special Thanksgiving meals.
For produce, Cooley Dickinson again mainly buys through distributors. Some of these, like Black River Produce, can source fruits and veggies from New England farms when in season and elsewhere in colder months, swapping seamlessly so the hospital’s menus can remain consistent.
Across the board, distributors play a huge role in local and regional food systems. First, they support local farms that sell products wholesale. Then, they provide big food service operations like hospitals and schools a one-stop shop to buy big quantities of what they need with minimal hassle, freeing them up to focus on food prep rather than managing logistics with individual farms.
In addition to volume, consistency, and quality, cost margins are also an important factor in what food the hospital purchases. This is especially true as they aim to keep entrees in the cafeteria reasonably priced, where many staff eat daily.
They key to making the whole operation run smoothly is relationships – between Cooley Dickinson and the businesses they buy from, internally among staff, and within the Mass General Brigham network of hospitals, which Cooley Dickinson merged into in 2013 back when the parent company was called Partners HealthCare. Weiss says the merger has been positive for many reasons, especially during the early days of COVID.
“I don’t know what we would have done otherwise,” he says. “It wasn’t just monetary support, but expertise and access to supplies like protective equipment and packaging for meals that we might not have been able to get otherwise.”
Knowledge and expertise also flow between facilities in the network. For example, Cooley Dickinson’s composting program, launched in 2011 with the support of the Center for EcoTechnology, has become a model for other healthcare centers.
“All of us can learn from each other,” says Weiss, “and that’s a great help.”
It’s all for the mission of helping people feel better – through medicine, care, and however many square meals a day the doctor orders.
“Most people don’t enjoy procedures or getting shots or things like that,” Weiss says. “But food, that they can look forward to.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA. To learn more about other local institutions supporting the local food economy, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.