Healthy Food for a Health Care Community

by Rebecca Hansen

Few cities have a medical community as large and distinguished as the one in Boston. The Longwood Medical Area alone is home to worldrenowned hospitals, research institutions and academic centers, where top scholars across many fields tackle critical public health issues and train the next generation of doctors.

Here among these centers of health and healing, one would expect the dining halls to be stocked with a wealth of nutritious, wholesome options. The reality, however, is often quite different.

As someone who works in the LongwoodMedical Area and has dined at many a hospital cafeteria, I have thought a great deal about the ongoing disconnect between the work of these institutions and much of the food they serve.The majority of the food is high in fat, even higher in sodium and very often deep-fried. It feels strange to watch doctors,nursesand patients load up their plates with fried ravioli and deepdish pepperoni pizza. I have grown used to heading straight for the salad bar when I forgetto pack a lunch. How is it that the food at such premier health-care institutions can be so very unhealthy, and that no one seems to mind?

Cost is often cited as an obstacle, and change is never easy, not just for an institution but for its customers as well.Much as we all say we want to eat better, it can be hard to choose fresh vegetables when there’s a tray of fried broccoli a few steps away.

Enter HarvardMedical School (HMS), where a sustainable dining initiative begun in 2005 is bringing fresh, local and planet-friendly dining options to the heart of the Longwood Medical Area. Part of Harvard’s Longwood Green Campus Initiative, the sustainable dining program isrun by Restaurant Associates (RA), who are national leaders in sustainability and provide food services primarily to museums, performing arts centers and educational institutions. Under the direction of Jason DiChiara of RA, the program is a thriving example of how fresh, local and sustainable dining practices can be cost-effective, healthy and delicious.

For Jason, directing the program was a natural fit. Having always loved cooking, he worked in restaurant kitchens prior to completing the management program at the Culinary Institute of America.

“I loved food, but I didn’t want to be cooking it every day,” he says. Jason also has a strong commitment to sustainable food systems. He and his family participate in a local CSA, and he possesses awealth of knowledge about the local food community—from restaurants to farms to sustainable practices.

Indeed, the program he has helped to build is very much a collaborative effort among many different groups. Jason is alwayslooking for new ways to connect the HMS community and local farms, and to educate customers about sustainable practices and options.

Restaurant Associates operates three cafés at HMS, with the Courtyard Café and Elements Café being the largest. Altogether,they serve around 600 people for breakfast each day, and over 1,500 for lunch, as well as a smaller dinner service during the school year. The seasonal menus feature over 90 percent local produce in peak summer months, much of which comes to the cafés through Red Tomato and their distributor, Dole &Bailey. Working with Red Tomato, a not-for-profit that helps family farms market their products to area consumers and businesses, was a natural fit for the program, says Jason. In addition to the convenience, Red Tomato works to promote each individual farm, another critical element of RA’s program at HMS.

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Things get even more local at the cafés in peaksummer months, with many of the veggies and herbs being grown on-site. The Earthbox garden, which grows everything from basil to tomatoes, began in 2008in conjunction with the Growing Connection, a project begun by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to promote cost-effective, water-efficient and sustainable methods of food growth across cultures. HMS allows the Growing Connection to use the garden as a demo site where they can promote their campaign to other schools and educational groups.

Working with so many local farms and ingredients requires a great deal of flexibility from Head Chef Vincent Magno. As a chef, he says, designing a menu that is both sustainable and filled with a variety of unique dishes presents a creative challenge. Because of the many variables that local farms face, such as the weeks of rain that fell this past June, he often doesn’t know what produce will be available until the day it arrives, so he creates his menus week to week. Vincent welcomes the challenge, however.When it comes to creating a sustainable menu, he says, “a chef ’sneed is much less important than what is available locally.” Like Jason, he values his relationships with area farms, knowing that they are key to the program’s success.

In addition to locally grown produce, the program also has an eye toward sustainable meat and seafood. Restaurant Associates works with Northeast Family Farms and Dole & Bailey to include items like freerange chicken and grass-fed beef on their menu. The grill station at Elements Café serves only local meats, including items that are smoked on-site, such as the beef brisket from Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, Massachusetts.

And when it comes to seafood, they only purchase items that fall within the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch guidelines. Soon, they will begin following even stricter guidelines as part of a new Green Dining Program announced by Restaurant Associates in June in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund. Among a long and comprehensive list of goals, by 2011 RA aims to have every site reduce its use of unsustainable-farmed shrimp and salmon by 60 percent, and reduce the carbon footprint of the proteins it serves by 20 percent. RA will also prohibit the purchase of pork and chicken that have been grown with the use of antibiotics also used in human medicine, a particularly significant goal in the context of the medical community.

Just as important as the healthy, environmentally conscious initiatives that Jason and Vincent are carrying out at HMS is their longstanding passion for good food.

“Food was always first,” says Jason. Indeed, with so many incredible ingredients on hand, eating at HMS feels more like a celebration of every ingredient than a typical cafeteria experience. Menu items such as a chilled cucumber gazpacho and dried fruit¬–stuffed pork loin are representative of the daily fare. Vincent also runs a weekly chef ’s tablewhere customers can watch him prepare an entree featuring ingredients such as smoked quail and local spinach. For Vincent, who prides himself on using simple, fresh ingredients to make great food, the chef ’s table provides yet another opportunity to educate the customers on the farm-to-table cycle.

“It is without question that using the best possible ingredients yields the best flavor,” he says. And the feedback has been great, with many regulars looking forward to the chef ’s station every week. “The flavors are great and people are excited that it’s local,” says Jason.

Building on this excitement, RA runs a farmers market alternating between the Elements and Courtyard Cafés eachWednesday during the summer, with the help of Red Tomato. Although it is small in size, everything is offered at cost, making it as affordable as it is convenient. The low pricing, says Jason, is about benefiting the medical community and the partnerships that RA has created with area farms.

“We’re just trying to promote these farms and promote seasonality and eating local.” With this in mind, all of the local food items on the menu are flagged for customers using signage that also lists the farm or ranch where they’re from.

Soon, Jason hopes to facilitate a larger, outdoor farmers market, where individual farms could have their own stands. Logistically, this type of market is a bit trickier, so this year Elements Café is hosting a weekly CSA instead, an idea that came to Jason over the winter. As a result, almost 30 members now pick up their weekly share from Gold Meadow Farms, a small farm in Foster, Rhode Island.

The list of healthy, sustainable initiatives goes on. The cafés offer several local, all-natural beverages, as well as some locally produced snacks and cookies. They also compost all of their pre-consumer waste and food scraps, with the goal of adding post-consumer compost bins in the cafés. Doing so would create the full circle Jason is working toward: farm to table, table to compost, and sending the compost back All in all, Restaurant Associates is proving that sustainable dining is a viable option, even for large food services programs such as the one at HMS. Not only can this type of program be cost-effective, but it can be as healthy for our planet as it is for our bodies. And it also tastes great. For those cafeteria goers who worry that they might miss the French fries and chicken fingers, I recommend a visit to one of the HMS cafés. You might just become their next regular.

The public is welcome at all of the HMS cafeterias. For their hours of operation and menus go to menus.asp.

Elements Café
New Research Building
77 Avenue Louis Pasteur

Courtyard Café
Warren Alpert Building
200 Longwood Avenue

Atrium Café
Tosteson Medical Education Center
260 Longwood Avenue

Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer based in Jamaica Plain. This year she joined a CSA for the first time and is enjoying the discovery of some new local treats, garlic scapes being at the top of the list. You can read more of her writing on local, sustainable food at

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