Glenna Crooks

According to local news, PETA sent a letter to Penn Health System CEO Ralph Muller urging him to follow the lead of hospitals in England, reducing their carbon footprint and improving patient health by eliminating the availability of meat for patients, visitors and employees.

HUP is one of my local hospitals; a place where friends have been treated for cancers, and last month, for heart failure. It’s got a big footprint in this town and I’m glad it was there for my friends.

If my hospital got a letter, maybe yours did, too.

A hospital spokesperson says they’ve not received the letter, but if CEO Muller wants my reaction – here goes.

Please don’t. I have five reasons:

Reason #1: Personal experience. I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 40 years. It was not an easy transition to make and not an easy lifestyle to live even though I was already – and still am – healthy, highly motivated and made the choice voluntarily.

  • The physical impact of the transition took a year and was rough sledding. I can’t imagine asking a person as ill as those recently hospitalized to take that on.
  • The skill challenge is substantial, entails difficult re-learning and supports for doing so today are only slightly better than decades ago. In 40 years of care by a number of different physicians – including some who were vegetarians themselves – it was only recently that one took the negative health consequences serious, explored – and found – an important deficiency in my diet, for example. Vegetarian cook books have beautiful covers and great recipes, but few covers show – and few recipes guide – adequate alternative protein sources for a lifetime.
  • The genetic challenge cannot be ignored. Genetics play a role in nutritional needs and some people – the Dali Lama, for example – will never be able to successfully make the transition.
  • The practical challenges are many. For anyone who travels, does not or cannot cook or readily control food choices, it’s hell. Airline, banquet and restaurant meal planners are not savvy about how to provide non-meat alternatives and I was eventually forced to return to fish for protein. Men I know who do physical labor say that despite their best efforts, vegetarian diets have not satisfied the physical demands that labor requires.
  • Finally, it can complicate life with other chronic conditions. For me, it came five years ago as my Irish genetic ancestral predisposition to celiac showed up – as it can later in life. All that good whole grains if wheat, barley and rye I was eating were, in fact, killing me. I easily adjusted to this new condition for at-home meals, but it complicates an already challenging dietary life style in travel and social situations.

Reason#2: Concern for patients. Hospital patients today are sicker than those of years past, many suffering from dire needs. Yes, some may be related to longstanding chronic conditions that are lifestyle related. But they’ll be discharged ‘quicker and sicker’ with orders to follow a variety of medication and other therapeutic regimes at home. Though many could no doubt benefit from a change in diet, eliminating meat – as was recommended to my friend with CHF – will additionally burden an already vulnerable person.

Reason #4: Limited cultural and social support. On the matter of vegetarian diets, the UK – and a number of European countries – outpaces the US in the social and cultural supports for vegetarians. When I travel there, not only can I get good vegetarian choices, but gluten free foods as well. Imagine that!

This allows me to work and socialize easily in those countries. Not so in the US. With all but a few of my minority group friends who populate the US today, I’m the “odd person out” socially. Food is important, but so are the opportunities to enjoy a meal with others. Our souls, not just our bodies, are nourished by the occasion and most meals make it difficult for vegetarians to do both outside their own homes in a healthy way.

Philly offers only a few good vegetarian restaurants and until recently, I’d given up pestering waiters about gluten free foods and just stayed home. Then I happened on one outstanding Center City (non-vegetarian) place, Davio’s, and can finally enjoy a gluten-free, meat-free meal to meet my needs and friends can order a meal that suits them.

It’s not easy for Davio’s, either, by the way. Catering Manager Rebecca knows her way around special dietary needs but General Manager Ettore must personally shop for some products because his suppliers don’t carry them! At least he does (!) and that’s a far cry from a nearby vegetarian restaurant owner who, when I inquired about wheat in some of his recipes, said that I should leave his establishment and confine my eating to home.

I can trek out to the burbs, where one well-known eatery helps out on the gluten side and I’ll never mind the walk to a great source of great gluten-free baked goodies at the Rittenhouse Farmer’s Market on Saturdays for the few hours that Kristen is there…but then, I’m healthy and I can. I can’t help but wonder about Penn’s patients, however. Can they? Are we adding to the distress of their illness? Does this net out positive for them?

Reason# 5: Make it easier for everyone. I welcome advocacy that improves health and nutrition and there are plenty of targets of opportunity in Philly. This is a major convention destination. Hotel banquet and conference manager savvy could introduce thousands to alternatives, the airport food shops could provide better choices, restaurateur and leading cultural figure Stephen Starr could be an important contributor to the effort…I could go on…

For the time being, however, I hope we leave the healing of the most vulnerable among us to the hospitals. I know from my friend with CHF that Penn is trying, but he spent only three days there and is now about-town and finding it overwhelming to adjust. His confusion about dietary changes has caused him more depression than the realities of the disease itself. He now sees food as his enemy, the joy of life is draining out of him. I’d like to take him out to dinner, cheer him up, show him some good alternatives he and his wife can duplicate at home….but it’s not that easy here.

I’d suggest we tackle the rest of the town. That will really help him – and the rest of us, too.

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