How New York’s Public Hospitals Cut Carbon Emissions: More Vegetables

On the menu at New York City’s 11 public hospitals is pasta with Bolognese sauce, without the meat. Or Sancocho, a Latin American beef stew, minus the beef. Or maybe a black-eyed peas casserole with cornbread made without butter or eggs.

NYC Health + Hospitals, the country’s largest municipal health system, has made plant-based food the default for inpatient meals. That means the food contains no meat, dairy or eggs. If a patient doesn’t like the first option, the second offering is also plant-based. Anyone who wants meat has to make a special request.

Now, a year after it made those sweeping changes, the hospital system has reduced its food-related carbon emissions by 36 percent, according to the mayor’s office.

And, jokes about hospital food aside, the changes seem to be a hit with patients. Samantha Morgenstern, a client executive and registered dietitian at Sodexo, the food services company providing the meals, said that nine times out of 10, patients accepted the dishes, and that the satisfaction rate was above 90 percent.

Just don’t call the food “vegan.” In offering the menus to patients, the hospitals made a strategic decision to avoid the term on labels accompanying food trays out of concern that it would turn off diners, Ms. Morgenstern said.

“Anecdotally, in our experience, and looking at research, there’s some negative connotations and preconceived feelings toward words like vegan,” she said. Instead, the hospitals call the food “plant-based.”

The company expects to serve more than 800,000 plant-based dishes this year at the hospitals.

The switch is part of a broad push from Mayor Eric Adams, a self-described vegan who sometimes eats fish, to cut meat consumption in the city to improve health and to curb greenhouse gas emissions. About 35 percent of the city’s planet-heating emissions come from buildings, with transportation and food each accounting for roughly 20 percent. The mayor’s office has pledged to reduce the city’s food-based emissions by a third by 2030.

A study from Oxford University, issued this summer, found that plant-based diets accounted for 75 percent less in greenhouse gas emissions than diets that include 3.5 ounces of meat a day. The world’s food system is responsible for one-third of greenhouse gasses, with beef, lamb and cheese the most polluting.

After the hospital system switched from animal products to plant-based food, there was an initial cost savings of 59 cents per tray, and while that amount has since fluctuated, it still costs less per plate than meat, Ms. Morgenstern said.

While other hospitals and institutions have signed the Coolfood Pledge, a promise to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter by 2030, the decision by New York public hospitals to make plant-based meals the default choice is a rarity. (Hayek Hospital, in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, began serving only plant-based food in 2021.)

“I am not aware of any other health systems that have gone ‘all in’ like N.Y.C.,” Matt Mundok, the principal and managing director of Innovative Hospitality Solutions, a food services consulting company, wrote by email.

Mercedes Redwood, an assistant vice president at NYC Health + Hospitals, said the staff regularly fielded queries from other hospitals around the country and the world about moving to a plant-based menu.

“We are the largest public health care system in the country,” Ms. Redwood said. “If we can do it, truly anyone can.”

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly the name of the entity that operates New York City’s 11 public hospitals. It is NYC Health + Hospitals, not the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.

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Cara Buckley is a climate reporter who focuses on people working toward solutions and off-the-beaten-path tales about responses to the crisis. She joined The Times in 2006 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. More about Cara Buckley

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