Hospital garden provides healthy food for cancer patients
It’s quite a surprise for patients to see Jamar Sheffey serving three different hummus creations in the waiting room of the Womens Cancer Center of Magee Womens Hospital of UPMC in Oakland.
Sheffey is team lead caterer at Magee and many of the ingredients come from the garden on site. He’s also showing visitors how they can make the same dish at home.
Many aren’t familiar with hummus and they exchange laughs as he demonstrates different ways to make the dish. There’s even a recipe card to take with them.
It’s part of a nutrition program created by the hospital to help patients eat better and, in turn, hopefully feel better.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity to show people who are going through this situation that there are healthy options out there,” says Sheffey, who conducts a monthly program in the waiting room. “It’s actually fun to educate people, that you can go fresh and it’s not expensive. The food just tastes so much better.”
Carol Vodzak of Baldwin, who brought a relative in for treatment, agrees. “I’m surprised how good this is, because I’m not a hummus eater. I do not buy or eat hummus, but I will, everything was delicious.”
Patsy Pro from Monroeville brought her husband’s cousin for chemo treatment and is also a cancer survivor. She’s looking forward to making the recipe at home. “I’ve never made it myself, this is so much better. The texture, the flavor is better.”
There’s science behind the recommendations that eating a healthy, plant-based diet will help patients, according to Dr. Adam Brufsky, co-director of the Comprehensive Breast Care Center at Magee.
“There are studies in breast cancer that the less fat you have in your diet, the better your chances of the cancer not coming back are,” he says. “One of the things we always try to stress is eating things closer to the ground. This garden is one more thing that we have to try to help patients become healthy.”
The Turtle and Fish Pond Garden in the hospital’s courtyard is filled with lettuce, kale, parsley, other herbs, eggplant, basil, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, pollinator plants and much more.
David Slowik, who takes care of the courtyard gardens, is harvesting aromatic, deep green basil leaves that will go directly to the kitchen. Slowik uses compost and mushroom manure to keep plants thriving and says that all the plants and supplies are purchased locally. Experts from Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens partner with the hospital to help too. He’s here three times a week tending the garden and harvesting its bounty.
Slowik finds that the garden gives people ideas to help grow at home, they will look at the raised beds and realize how easy it would be to duplicate. He sees the garden also as a place of relaxation and solace. “This is probably one of the quietest places in the hospital or Oakland for that matter,” he says.
The garden isn’t just for visitors though. Anita Nowak is senior director of ambulatory and diagnostics at Magee. She has the perfect view of the green space from her office window.
“It’s a nice break, you can hear kids at the fish ponds,” she says. “I never had a window, so this is the greatest thing ever, just seeing the sunshine, getting a break when things get crazy. It gives you a sense of relaxation and then you can regroup and go back to what you were doing.”
Chris Vitsas, director of food nutrition for three UPMC hospitals including Magee, echoes that sentiment. “Our gardens are a great place for patients and family to go for a walk,” he says.
But there’s more to it than that.
“The main reason for the garden is for health and wellness,” he says.
More than 2,000 pounds of produce is harvested each season out of the garden and it’s all used at the hospital. It’s also about educating people about the power of fresh produce grown without chemicals. That’s what the food demonstrations are all about and they change monthly as the different produce becomes available.
“The best thing about food is that it’s all about what you like,” says Vitsas. “If you like artichokes and spinach put some of that in there, much better for you than ranch dressing and carrots.”
Karen Kubas, clinical dietician at the hospital, knows garden produce is much better source of nutrients for the patients than taking vitamins.
“Food that’s fresh from the garden is going to be higher in nutrients and you’re not transporting it a distance so you’re not loosing any nutrients,” she says. The recipes are easy, tasty and good for patients.
“Showing people how they can do it is going to convince them they can do it at home,” says Kubas, who’s a kale fan and used it in last month’s demonstration. “It’s high in beta carotene, calcium, the minerals like potassium and magnesium. Cancer patients, when they are going through treatment, are often low in those types of minerals.”
Mixing up your diet is important too, she says. “There’s no single superfood. It’s really eating that variety that allows you to get all the nutrients you need.”
Jan Beck from Meadville is just hours away from finishing her final chemo treatment and getting to ring the chemo graduation bell. She’s been coming here since November but this was the first time Beck was here when the food was being served.
“I thought it was delicious,” she says. “I want to check out the garden. I will definitely be making the hummus, maybe this weekend. I texted my daughter and told her we’re going to try this. I’m sure it’s much healthier than what I’d buy at the store.”
Traditional hummus recipe from Magee
1 (15 oz.) can of chickpeas or 11⁄2 cups cooked chickpeas
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1⁄4 cup tahini
1 small garlic clove minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Place all ingredients into food processor and process until smooth.
Serve with toasted pita chips or fresh vegetables.