Podcast: The healing power of food

Every week, Harm Edens of BNR radio interviews internal and external experts on why a bank is aiming to build a better world. In this week’s podcast, he speaks to Koen Nouws Keij, director of institutional meal initiative Diverzio.

Listen to the podcast now (in Dutch) or read on for our synopsis in English.

Few patients in hospitals and nursing homes enjoy their meals. Cooked in bulk, served out in bulk, they often end up in the garbage, virtually untouched. But there is hope. Since 2011, a Dutch foundation called Diverzio has been developing healthier, more sustainable ways to feed patients while keeping costs down.

Koen Nouws Keij, the foundation’s director, explains: “I believe meals should be the highlight of a patient’s day. That way, patients eat more and recover more quickly. Indeed, food is just as important a medicine as pills and powders! Meanwhile, studies show that food waste costs Dutch institutions EUR 200 million a year, and poor nutrition as much as EUR 2 billion a year in extra care costs. With my background as a business economist and food technologist, I saw ways to tackle these issues.

Connecting farmers and healthcare

“I spoke to farmers in my neighborhood who wanted to sell their products locally, to hospitals and nursing homes. They wanted to feel connected to the region and the local market. But they didn’t know how to go about it. So I agreed to help them.

“My first step was to spend time inside a care institution. Not just in the boardroom, but in the kitchen. I saw a lot of food coming back to the kitchen, so I went to the wards and spoke to individual patients. Then a team of smart people, experts in health and economics, but also cooking, communications and education, looked at my findings and put together a program to help institutions purchase and serve fresh, sustainable food sourced from local farmers.

“Meals should be the highlight of a patient’s day”

- Koen Nouws Keij, Diverzio

Patients as guests

“The program identified changes that could make a difference treating patients more like guests, finding out what they want to eat and when, and changing the menu frequently. We set up the Diverzio foundation to bring parties together and roll out the program. Farmers went to pitch their products to hospitals, telling doctors so much about their products and the health benefits.

“Our first project was at a small-scale care facility. We had some organizational teething problems and tweaked things until it ran well. Then we started a multi-unit project for a hospital and several nursing homes. At the same time, we wanted to convince 100 organizations here in the Netherlands to switch to our method. That would take Diverzio to a tipping point.

Quick wins

“Not long after we started, tests showed that our approach was making a difference. The first , quickest wins are to do with mindset. Things like friendlier service and laying the table. In just six months, food waste dropped from 30-40% to under 20%.

“You can reduce waste to under 10% by making a radical shift from mass catering to cooking fresh food on demand. It may take a year or two, because it involves building a different kitchen and introducing IT solutions to process patients’ orders. But it really makes a difference! One hospital we work with achieved great strides within a year. They even invited a TV chef to help them create their menus.

“You can reduce waste to under 10% by cooking food on demand”

- Koen Nouws Keij, Diverzio

Shorter hospital stays

“The better patients eat and the happier they feel, the sooner they recover and leave the institution. That makes sense, but it’s not easy to prove. Our data suggests, however, that better food may shave a day or more off average stays. Given that a day in hospital costs EUR 1,400 to 1,600 per patient, that can really add up!

“It’s been great to have the support of parties like Rabobank. Their client network, including farmers as well as healthcare institutions, their help with investment and finance, but also with communications, and their power to get things done.

“Our next goal is to reach 200 organizations across the Netherlands. After six years, the process has gained so much traction that the farmers and the institutions are taking things into their own hands. We’re hardly necessary any more, and that’s good news.”

Rabobank’s ‘Banking for Food’ podcasts are available via various podcast apps for iPhone and Android, SoundCloud and Stitcher.