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food New Milford Dining Service

Hospital offers free healthy meals to cancer patients

After chemo or radiation treatments, patients get dine-in or take-home meals from Unidine’s new Eatingwell Plow to Plate program at New Milford Hospital.

Some of the most notorious side effects of cancer treatment include loss of appetite, food tasting metallic, nausea and other issues that essentially take the joy out of eating.

A helpful antidote is taking shape this month at the Diebold Family Cancer Center of New Milford Hospital in New Milford, Conn., in the form of free meals available to cancer treatment patients. The Eatingwell Plow to Plate program is an outgrowth of an already-successful healthy cooking class series by Unidine that has been offered mostly to cancer patients who are done with treatment and in recovery.

“Our Let’s Get Cooking program is a cooking and nutrition demo and that’s based off of the American Institute of Cancer Research’s guidelines for following a mainly plant-based diet. For three years, it’s been a big success but it’s not designed for people who are in active treatment,” says Cindy Tyler, RN, the hospital’s cancer navigator. “The Eatingwell program is for someone who’s going through treatment right now.”

Together with New Milford Dining Service Director Kerry Gold, who’s also a trained chef, and Michelle Michele MacDonnell, RDN, clinical nutrition manager at the hospital, Tyler began dreaming up this new program last summer, raising about $34,000 in funding from donors in the community to operate the program in its first year.

The team plans to serve about 350 free meals per month, featuring superfoods like kale, salmon, berries and quinoa to people going through the rigors of fighting cancer.

“It’s a wellness program to help them eat well during treatment and to reduce caregiver burden and stress,” Tyler says, adding that programs like this strengthen the hospital’s connection with the community. “Kerry is always saying that food is medicine, so this is extending what we already do for the patient population.”

According to American Cancer Society, eating well during treatment can help patients feel better, keep up energy and strength to heal and recover more quickly. A good diet has also been linked to patients being better able to tolerate side effects of the cancer-treatment drugs, decrease the risk of infection and maintain a healthy weight.

But that’s easier said than done, Tyler says.

“Sometimes all of a patient’s resources have been used up just getting to treatment; a family member gives them a ride to the hospital, and then no one feels like going home and cooking,” she says.

Patients undergoing treatment in the cancer center can find fliers with info about the program, and a voucher to come down to the hospital café, where they can either eat there or take the meal to go.

Already, patients have been taking advantage of the program in its first weeks, with an average of about 10 free meals being served each day. 

“I see them come in and it’s amazing how they’re utilizing the program,” Gold says.

The nutrition and culinary team is ready to create dishes that will appeal to the individual, depending on where they’re at on any given day.

“Sometimes food has a metallic taste and meats tend to be hard for people in treatment,” MacDonnell says. “And with any cancer that affects the head and neck, sometimes people have difficulty swallowing, so we have fresh-made smoothies with Greek yogurt, milk and fresh fruit.” 

And the menu has a strong focus on local, fresh foods, an example of Unidine’s “real food first” philosophy, which looks to minimize the use of nutritional supplements.

“Unidine’s a fresh food company and I’m a chef by trade and my staff are culinarians,” Gold says. “We make our own stocks and salad dressings and we work with fresh foods and partner with local farmers.”

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