Multi-region pilot brings regionally-grown, plant-based proteins to patient menus
Hospital project gives “Beantown” a new meaning
In the fall of 2022, Brigham and Women’s Hospital introduced a brand new product to its patrons — a falafel made from local yellow peas. This culinary invention was the result of a partnership between hospitals, farmers, processors, Health Care Without Harm, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“We launched the falafel at the Garden Café grill station [where it] will be a daily offering,” said Susan Langill, Brigham and Women’s Hospital food and nutrition department general manager.
Their yellow pea falafel gyro sandwich consists of three falafels in a warm whole grain pita with hummus, lettuce, tomato, and onion, topped with tzatziki sauce. Langill says the dish will also be featured as a weekly special on patient menus.
A strong advocate for sustainability in food service, Langill hosted the Plant Powered 30 Challenge for employees last July.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Practice Greenhealth partner, is a 762-bed teaching hospital in the Longwood neighborhood of Boston. It is one of several hospitals around the country stoking interest in local foods and plant-forward eating through its participation in a three-year, multi-region pilot led by Health Care Without Harm. The USDA-funded project was designed to increase production of plant proteins in Colorado, California, the Pacific Northwest, and New England through demand from the health care sector.
In each region, Health Care Without Harm convened hospitals, farmers, food producers, manufacturers, and recipe developers to work together to identify a plant protein that grows well in the region that hospitals could use.
In New England, Langill was one of several hospital food service experts who joined this effort. Other hospitals that participated included Brigham and Women’s affiliate Faulkner Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MaineGeneral Medical Center in Maine, and Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts.
At a project meeting, Langill emphasized to the group that the product must be easy-to-use and cost-effective.
“As eager as we are to purchase the product and support so many of our initiatives, it is important that the [product we choose] be cost-effective and easy to use,” Langill shared. “With the financial pressures hospitals are facing, the price point needs to be reasonable as a patient menu item and keep the cafeteria price affordable for our employees. The labor shortage has affected our culinary staffing levels, so products that are quick and easy to work with are equally paramount.”
The group considered a number of plant proteins with the aid of a producer technical assistance provider, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Yellow peas emerged as a promising candidate. Similar to split peas, yellow field peas are traditionally used domestically as a cover crop — one that is grown to protect and enhance soil in farm fields. Yellow peas are pulses, legume crops harvested as dry grains. And while yellow peas feature heavily in diets in other countries, they are underutilized as a plant-based protein in the United States.
Sara Williams Flewelling is a second-generation farmer, miller, and baker. With her father, Matt Williams, and husband, Marcus Flewelling, she co-owns Aurora Mills and Farm in Aroostook County, Maine, the northernmost county in the contiguous United States. The family has successfully grown organic oats, wheat, and legumes including yellow peas for years on their 150-acre farm. Williams Flewelling was motivated to find more market channels for her farm’s organic grains and pea flours, and worked with NCAT to develop a yellow pea supply for processing.
“Projects like this are important, in part because they can help hospitals see that their purchases have real impact on rural families and economies,” said Williams Flewelling about the project, which has provided a new market for her yellow peas and could add to the farm’s bottom line.
The hospital group grew excited about yellow peas, as they were unique to their menus, a good source of protein, and utilizing them would provide a new market for the region’s farmers. However, they could not work with dry peas, so Health Care Without Harm collaborated with culinary and product development experts at Johnson & Wales University to transform yellow field peas from Aurora Mills into a falafel with a similar taste, texture, ease-of-use, and price point to food service chickpea falafel already on the market.
A year of product development and taste testing, followed by securing a manufacturing partnership with Boston-based CommonWealth Kitchen to produce the recipe, culminated in the successful launch of a yellow pea falafel, dubbed the “field falafel.”
The exciting new product was integrated into menus across two Boston-based health care systems in October 2022. Nearby Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is also purchasing the field falafel, which has become a mainstay on their cafeteria salad bar.
The field falafel, currently distributed by Providence-based food hub Farm Fresh Rhode Island, will continue to influence plant-forward dining in Boston-area hospitals and beyond. Farm Fresh Rhode Island notes it has received additional interest in the field falafel from local schools and universities. As distribution expands to other distributors and food hubs, the field falafel will become more widely available to hospitals and other institutions across New England.
To learn more about why hospitals are choosing plant-forward menus and how to implement them successfully, visit Practice Greenhealth’s Plant-Forward Future resources.