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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

New Milford Hospital Believes Food is Medicine: Plow to Plate Program Wins Award; Rooftop Aeroponic Tower Gardens Bloom

Sep 04, 2015 02:32AM ● By Natasha Michael

It may be one of the smaller hospitals in the region, but for the past decade, New Milford Hospital, a member of the Western Connecticut Health Network, has taken a leadership position in community advocacy, especially with regard to the quality and sustainability of the food offered within its walls. Constant innovation and support for the local community through the hospital’s Plow to Plate (PTP) initiative, with sub-programs such as Senior Suppers and Youth Chef Advocates and Signature Dish, have led to the hospital gaining a 2015 Connecticut’s Hospital Community Service Award from the Connecticut Hospital Association (CHA).

Given during the 97th Annual Meeting of the CHA at the end of June, the CHA/Connecticut Department of Public Health-sponsored award is to recognize outstanding achievement in community service. New Milford Hospital was specifically recognized for its PTP program.

PTP was created at New Milford Hospital in 2006 to address troubling upward trends in obesity and related diseases in the hospital’s service area. As Susan Twombly, community outreach and integrative medicine coordinator, explains, “New Milford Hospital leadership realized the importance of fresh food as disease prevention long before the Affordable Care Act with its emphasis on disease preventing tactics.” The PTP program advocates healthy food as a direct path to disease prevention as it also supports the local agricultural economy. The initiative delivers locally based, healthful food service resources to patients, staff and the community, using fresh produce from nine area farms as well as the hospital’s own garden. In 2008, Unidine joined the PTP initiative by being selected as the hospital’s food service provider.

Over the years PTP has expanded to encompass nutrition-based community programs including: a Senior Suppers program, which provides seniors with a nutritious meal for $5; a Youth Chef Advocates program with an experiential curriculum teaching high school applicants about nutrition and the food industry; an information table at a weekly farmers’ market; and a Signature Dish Initiative, where a host of local establishments that serve food use the PTP logo and a related footnote on their menus to denote healthier food choices.

This community advocacy results in positive outcomes, shown during a three-year study conducted by PTP cofounder Diane D’Isidori, M.D., in collaboration with United Way. To determine the effectiveness of sustainable health education, D’Isidori measured the BMI of 148 children aged four who regularly visited her practice. Data was collected over a three-year period starting in 2012 and ending in 2015 when the children were six. In 2012, 13 percent of the enrollees were considered obese with 24 percent considered at risk. In 2015, nine percent of the enrollees were considered obese with 19 percent considered at risk; there was a decline of four percent and five percent respectively over three years of sustainable health education.

Further cementing the hospital’s commitment to the tenet of “food is medicine,” Dining Services Director Kerry Gold got the green light to install six aeroponic tower gardens on the rooftop deck in May when the emergency department required space the hospital garden used to occupy. “When the emergency department went in, the space where we’d been growing produce to supplement what we get from local farms was lost,” Gold said. “Then I heard about the aeroponic towers, and I knew we had the solution.”

Aeroponic tower gardening is a vertical, soil-free growing system. Each tower has a water-holding tank in the base with separate cups along the outside of the structure which hold each individual plant. A nutrient tonic is mixed with water and pumped every 15 minutes to the top of the tower; it then trickles down to feed individual plant roots. Recent studies by the University of Mississippi have found plants grow 30 percent faster in aeroponic towers than with traditional gardening. As a plant is harvested, a new start for the same vegetable or herb is placed in the tower cup, bare roots down.

Celery, peppers, jalapenos, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, kale, chives, sage, dill and thyme are some of the vegetables and herbs cultivated in the New Milford Hospital roof tower gardens this year.

“I do believe food is medicine,” Gold said. “Unidine Corp., the company I work through, believes in growing our own food, creating dishes from fresh produce and herbs. I never buy canned beans or soup stock, nothing canned. Everything has to be fresh.”

Gold came to New Milford Hospital and the PTP initiative in 2008, when Unidine was contracted to run the program. His kitchen prepares meals for patients, staff and the public, served in a newly renovated café area at the hospital.

Western Connecticut Health Network is the region’s premier, patient-centered health care organization serving residents of Western Connecticut and adjacent New York. With this affiliation, the organization is now anchored by three nationally recognized hospitals, Danbury Hospital, New Milford Hospital and Norwalk Hospital, as well as their affiliated organizations.

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Natasha Michaels is a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings Fairfield County.

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