Standing over a harvest of fresh foliage at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream, George Cherian, the head of food and nutrition at the hospital, looks toward the green array of vegetables with beaming eyes.
The garden — located near the inner edge of the parking lot — is already starting to sprout basil stems and tomato vines. And it grew a lot quicker thanks to its boxed-in exterior.
Cherian’s longtime passion for sustainable farming, having grown up in a farm in India, was kept a secret from his fellow co-workers until recently when the hospital launched a pilot program on hydroponic gardening — the first of its kind within Northwell’s Health System, the parent company of the hospital.
“I never told them my experience regarding this,” Cherian said. “I said you guys could do it, you know, it’s a team effort.”
The program will provide produce for hospital meals and will also be used as a way to educate patients on more healthful eating.
Northwell hired Bruno Tison, a Michelin-star chef, to focus on a more organic-based meal plan for patients across its 23 hospitals. This past year, Tison said, they have already switched out the fryers and frozen foods.
He said the gardens are part of several cost-effective initiatives that are being implemented across the hospitals. Hydroponic gardening does not require weeding because there is no soil. The practice is now becoming commonly known as a “soil-less” alternative that promotes faster growth since its enclosed space directs nutrients to the plants.
The team first approached Edward John Shapiro, operations manager at the kitchen, to help with research on the hydroponic boxes.
Cherian then led them to the 400-square-foot space that would serve as their work area. “He never once gave any bit of information that he knew what he was doing,” said Patty Sobol, executive chef at LIJ Valley Stream, which has 284 beds.
Now three weeks since the first seedlings were harvested, the enclosed garden space has four 100-foot hydroponic boxes that were hand built by the hospital’s engineering team. Some of the plants being grown are strawberries, kale, collard greens, cucumbers, mint and oregano.
Shapiro said “creating something from nothing” was the best experience they had as they watched the seedlings grow into vegetation. “Making it our own and watching it grow is really fulfilling,” he said.