The Yale Daily News, the nation’s oldest college daily newsletter recently featured an article on Fresh Advantage and their work with Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC). “Food for Thought” discusses the work of Marydale Debor, Chef Ann Gallagher, and Francine Blinten with the vulnerable populations served by CMHC.
“First question — who’s hungry?”
This is Anne Gallagher’s opening line as she addresses the small group huddled before her around a kitchen table. Clad in a white chef’s coat embroidered with her name, Chef Anne — as she is called by everyone — is a professionally trained chef who owns a successful farm-to-table catering company.
But today, she won’t be making hors d’oeuvres. On the surface, she will be teaching the group a simple skill: how to cook a chicken. In reality, though, she has a much bigger goal in mind: teach her small audience how to eat healthy despite struggling with mental illness and living on less than $6 for food per day. For the group of outpatients gathered before her in the fifth floor kitchen of the Connecticut Mental Health Center, food — and health — can never be taken for granted.
The Connecticut Mental Health Center is a community mental health center co-run by the state of Connecticut and Yale with the mission of providing mental health care to low-income and underserved populations. Its five-story building, with enough beds for only 42 inpatients, sits in the shadow of the much larger Yale-New Haven Hospital right across the street. Still, CMHC serves around 6000 outpatients each year, and often up to 2400 outpatients at any given time.
“These patients are the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick,” says Marydale Debor, who runs a firm called Fresh Advantage that began working with CMHC in 2011 to design and implement a new set of food policies. “We’re looking at an institution that’s serving people that are really deprived.”
A part-time chef, part-time educator, Chef Anne is just one member of a team that runs the “Better Eaters Club” at CMHC. Every Tuesday afternoon, the group of outpatients and peer facilitators — alumni of the program who return to help — meets in CMHC’s small fifth-floor kitchen, well-lit by the large windows lining the wall and lending a view of the hospital across the street. There, they learn how to shop for, cook and eat healthy food on a budget.
Better Eaters Club is just one branch of a larger effort at CMHC to change the way that patients and staff approach food. The changes are everywhere, from the cafeteria to the staff lounge to outpatient programming, all envisioned by Debor and implemented by Bob Cole, chief operating officer of CMHC.
“The Better Eaters Club,” Debor says, “is part of a whole constellation of changes.”
As an institution that serves both inpatients and outpatients, food is present in CMHC through two main channels: the cafeteria, where outpatients and staff eat, and in-room food service for inpatients.
Before this year, food was not prepared on site — it came from the YNHH cafeteria and was transported to CMHC through an underground tunnel. There were also numerous vending machines throughout the clinic that sold sugar-sweetened beverages. As a result, Cole says, patients at CMHC were developing medical issues on top of their psychiatric issues.