Hospital food gets zest with herb garden on roof of Kenmore Mercy

Kenmore MercyHospital herb gardenby Connie Oswald Stofko

Unused space on a roof has been turned into an herb garden at Kenmore Mercy Hospital in Kenmore, and it is adding fresh taste to meals there.

“We’re trying to change institutional food,” said Kathy Kubiak-McAlpine, food service manager at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. “We want people to view it in a new light.”

“It’s not the same old hospital food,” said Vinny Richter, chef at the hospital, pictured above.

Kubiak-McAlpine got the idea for the garden last year, and applied for a grant through the Kenmore Mercy Hospital Foundation.

sage in Kenmore Mercy Hospital herb garden

Two square containers were purchased, and the garden was planted this season. It is now bursting with sage, oregano, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, plum tomatoes and cherry tomatoes.

You can also see marigolds, which were planted as a natural insect repellent, she said. The gardens are outside a family waiting room, so it also gives people something pleasant to look at.

Right now the herbs are used mainly in the hospital’s cafeteria, which serves staff , visitors and out-patients, though the parsley is used in homemade chicken soup for in-patients as well.

The staff is starting small and would like to expand. Richter would like to add garlic and peppers.

Italian parsley in garden at Kenmore Mercy in Kenmore, NY
Italian Parsley

Kubiak-McAlpine said she is interested in growing stevia, an herb that is eight times sweeter than sugar, but has no calories or carbohydrates. This could be a boon for diabetics who have to watch their carbohydrates, but want something sweet.

When you put a bit of stevia in your mouth, “it’s just like you ate a spoonful of sugar,” she said.

While stevia has been grown and consumed in Japan for decades, it was banned in the United States until 2008. Stevia will definitely grow in Western New York; Kubiak-McAlpine grew it in her home garden this summer.

“When somebody is on a special diet, they might think that diet is bland or boring,” she said. “If we can add natural herbs to it, it’s tastier and more attractive.”

plum tomatoes in Kenmore Mercy roof garden
Plum Tomatoes

“The fresh herbs are viewed as a benefit to patient care,” said Annele Neyman, an outpatient dietitian at the hospital. “We want the healthy foods to taste great.”

When dishes are flavored with herbs, you don’t have to use as much salt. That is  beneficial to people who need to consume less sodium, and it can reduce blood pressure for those at risk, Neyman said.

You can also have great tasting food without adding as much fat, which can aid in weight loss, she said.

oregano in herb garden at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, Kenmore, NY

Plus, herbs “can be a source of anti-oxidants to protect against heart disease and cancer,” Neyman said. “And of course, fresh ingredients add flavor. Good flavor means patients whose appetites are compromised are more likely to eat nutritious foods essential to their recovery.”

“People eat with their eyes,” Richter said, and herbs add color to a dish. People also enjoy a dish more if it has an appealing smell. The wonderful aroma of herbs also may encourage people to try a new, more healthful dish.

Kubiak-McAlpine finds that while some people need convincing to try foods that are more healthful, others are already very interested in nutrition. By serving healthful foods, they’re meeting customers’ demands.

Richter and the other kitchen staff harvest the plants and use them fresh. As the cold weather approaches, he will freeze or dry the herbs to use during the winter.

If you want to dry herbs, just “pick them, hang them to air dry for a few days and you’re good to go,” Richter said.

watering herb garden at Kenmore Mercy Hospital
Sue Battaglia, left, waters the basil while Brooke Kriegbaum gathers tomatoes.

The garden is tended by the food service staff, and they enjoy taking a break from their kitchen duties to water and harvest, Richter said.

“My staff has definitely embraced it,” Kubiak-McAlpine said. “They enjoy coming up here.”

As a home gardener, Kubiak-McAlpine may have a special insight as to why the staff cheerily took on the extra duties of caring for the herbs.

“Gardening is a stress reliever for me,” she said.

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