In Search of Better Food, Not More Pain Meds

It’s just what the patient ordered.

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If you’ve ever been in a hospital bed, you probably learned that a tray of real food is much harder to find than pain medication— but it can make you feel better in more ways than one.

That’s part of the idea behind the Urban Zen Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 2006 by fashion force Donna Karan to give health care a makeover.

The designer’s yen to promote integrative therapy came about after cancer took her husband’s life—she’d seen firsthand how yoga and breathing exercises had relieved his pain in ways traditional treatments couldn’t.

Urban Zen’s goal, says Jamie Naughright, director of integrative therapists, is to teach caregivers to incorporate yoga, aromatherapy, massage and a more healthful diet into treatment. The organization has launched a formal certification program—called the Urban Zen Integrative Therapist program, or UZIT —to bring the concept to health care providers. From a dietary perspective, UZIT will cover contemporary theories in nutrition and their benefits, says Jill Pettijohn, the chef and registered nurse heading the nutrition training module. She says that includes everything from veganism to raw foods to the simple idea that “naturally grown foods are better than conventionally grown ones,” she says. (The 100 students in the therapist program’s inaugural class have been seen at Mary’s Fish Camp, Westville, Cowgirl and other lunch spots near the Foundation’s Greenwich Street headquarters.)

With the help of Karan’s star power, Urban Zen has partnered with Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center, teaching doctors, nurses, therapists and administrators to integrate alternative therapies into patient treatment—and to make sure those caregivers are taking care of themselves.

A long-term goal, says Naughright, is to bring better food into hospitals. Thus far Urban Zen is paying to have a nurses’ pantry created in the cancer ward at Beth Israel, where all-juice popsicles and organic snacks are available for both nurses and patients. The foundation is also in talks with the hospital’s food service provider. In fact, food has become such an important component of Urban Zen’s outlook that April 16 through 18 they’re hosting a three-day conference on nutrition and diet; most of it will be open to the public, including panels with best-selling doctor-authors Mehment Oz and Dean Ornish.

For Naughright, moving the program beyond yoga has been a critical step toward truly integrative therapy, something she realized when Urban Zen went to New Orleans to help Katrina victims.

“I don’t want to put my foot behind my head. I want some good food, I want some good smells, I want you to massage me,” Naughright recalls hearing from patients. Now, she says, “It’s all coming together.”

Illustration by Bambi Edlund

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.