A table outside a Boston hospital cafeteria offers samples of a dish of the day: stir-fry soba noodles with shiitake mushrooms and mixed vegetables. Andrea Venable, a parking services worker in a bright red uniform shirt, picks up a small plastic cup and peeks inside.
“Looks like noodles,” Venable says. She shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll try.”
She likes the sample, but she’s unconvinced by the cafeteria’s efforts to introduce more plant-based dishes. “I think it’s good for people who eat, like, vegetarian,” she says.
Venable is not one of them. She loves meat and is not interested in eating less of it.
Therein lies the challenge for leaders at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital. It is difficult to persuade people to reduce their meat consumption. Faulkner started trying around 20 years ago for health reasons. “Meatless Mondays” generated a lot of complaints at the hospital. And don’t even ask what time they cut the fries and chicken nuggets off the menu.
But hospital leaders say they’ve noticed a shift since at least 2020, when they began framing their efforts around climate change. Patients and employees who wouldn’t adjust their diets to improve their own health do so for the greater good.
“It’s a little more altruistic that way,” says Susan Langill, director of the hospital’s food services, which are provided by Sodexo. “They put the earth and future generations before their own health.”
Faulkner is one of 60 hospitals, universities, major corporations and cities that have signed an international pledge to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030. The hospital is starting with the cafeteria and will also extend to the modification of patient meals.
A key factor, perhaps the key, will be to serve less meat. The hospital’s latest data shows that beef and the occasional order of lamb make up just 5% of its food purchases, but account for 56% of the hospital’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions.
“Seeing this chart,” says Langill, “was a game-changer for me.
Stealth Strategies for Introducing Plant-Based Foods
Langill says many diners need a boost. The hospital’s strategies, centered first on the personnel, are subtle, even a little…stealth. Here is one:
“Celebrate what’s in the dish as opposed to what’s taken out of it,” says Langill.
The strategy stems from a handbook of suggestions that accompanies the climate emissions pledge.
Today’s soba noodle special, for example, is meatless. But elegant, descriptive signs on the tasting table don’t say that. In fact, the words “vegan” or “vegetarian” do not appear in the name of any dish on the hospital cafeteria menu. The hospital has learned that dishes labeled vegan appeal to virtually only vegans.
“A lot of people don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian,” says Langill. “Instead, we market dishes based on flavor or the cultural benefits and celebrations of this food.”
Other strategies include putting plant-based or plant-rich foods at the front of the buffet. There’s often a meatless option like eggplant alongside chicken parmesan as a ready alternative.
And contests are popular, like asking staff to try a different plant-based item from the menu every day for 30 days. Cafeteria staff offer cooking demonstrations with tofu and tempeh and hand out recipe cards.
Dr. Len Lilly, a cardiologist who stops by to take a sample of soba noodles, is thrilled. He says a climate-friendly diet is also a healthier diet because it includes less meat.
“I happened to come to this cafeteria and choose between steak and hamburger,” says Lilly. “It’s not good.”
Other hospital staff also agree with the incremental changes.
Operating room nurse Matt Wilson and his wife have started eating vegan once a week for dinner. They get used to jokes from friends.
“They always laugh at me when I tell them I eat vegan meals, but that’s okay,” Wilson says between bites of soba noodles. “They will convert. I have faith.”
Towards more sustainable food
The next frontier for Faulkner and its largest subsidiary Brigham and Women’s Hospital is new patient menus. They will have more plant-based dishes where adding meat is an option, such as tacos or a barbecue burger with a choice of patties: black beans, turkey, chicken or beef.
The hospital is already nudging patients with meatless daily specials: a roasted edamame salad or a teriyaki tofu and grilled pineapple wrap, for example.
Food is likely a small part of most hospitals’ greenhouse gas emissions, but advocates say it’s a critical step in reducing emissions. And Health Care Without Harm, a group that helps the industry tackle climate change, says it’s the one that will have an impact.
Climate commitment includes using more sustainable foods such as those highlighted by the World Wildlife Fund’s 50 Foods of the Future list. It includes fava beans, buckwheat, and okra — foods that could help kick the addiction to corn, rice, and wheat.
Expanding the range of commonly consumed beans, grains and vegetables could help preserve biodiversity and help farmers cope with the impacts of climate change. These foods can also help diversify people’s diets, increasing their intake of fiber, vitamins and other healthy micronutrients.
Faulkner general manager for foodservice, Mike Hanley, says he regularly adds something from the list to promotions. And the hospital serves local fish twice a week, often not the usual fare. Diners may see species such as spiny dogfish, cusk, bluefish, skate and burbot.
“Anything that swims in our waters,” says Mike Hanley, general manager of food services at Faulkner Hospital. “You name it, we served it. And it’s cheaper than beef.”
A commitment to reduce food-related emissions
The commitment to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions is led by the World Resources Institute. It measures progress in two ways: emissions related to the weight of food purchased, which aims to reduce by 25%, and emissions per calorie which must reduce by 38%. Buying fewer pounds of beef versus plant food is the quickest route.
The science of calculating emissions for individual foods is new, so estimates are approximate. They are based on the type of food, the amount of land used, the agricultural supply chain and other factors.
Starting in 2021, the first 30 organizations to sign a 21% reduction in emissions per calorie from food.
“We hope we show that change is possible,” says Richard Waite, senior research associate in food and climate programs at the World Resources Institute. “But we need many more to make those same kinds of changes if we, as a world, are to get to where we need to be by 2030.”
One year after the start of the commitment, Faulkner shows a 2.2% decrease in emissions per calorie. Brigham and Women’s reduced emissions per calorie by 20%.
Langill says she’s optimistic both hospitals will hit the target. “As long as we keep doing things like this,” she says, gesturing towards the tasting table, “and convincing people to change their ways.”
At the signal, Andrea Venable, the enthusiastic meat eater, once again passes the tasting table.
“I have to say it’s good,” she said taking another sample, “really good.”