Food for thought: St. Jude emphasis on nutrition spans the decades

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Nutrition at St. JudeA team approach to care
The St. Jude teen sceneDanny Thomas with fellow comedian Jack Benny and the architectural drawing of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Nutrition at St. Jude


Nutrition is important to all children, but especially to patients undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses. At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, clinicians have always understood the importance of good nutrition.

In the early 1970s, St. Jude physicians set up a volunteer clinic to provide health care to some of the poorer areas of Memphis. At the clinic, the doctors made a startling discovery: Many members of the community were malnourished. Donald Pinkel, MD, St. Jude director at the time, declared that malnutrition was indeed a catastrophic disease and began to research the problem. That study led to the establishment of a food program in Memphis for children and expectant mothers.

After viewing a TV documentary about the St. Jude program, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota happened to see a local TV station documentary about the program. He subsequently initiated legislation to change the Child Nutrition Act using data supplied by St. Jude. This led to the creation of the WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program that serves 53 percent of the infants born in the United States today.

That emphasis on nutrition remains an integral part of St. Jude.



When children go to the hospital for treatment, they leave safety and predictability behind—along with their toys, friends and pets. Dropped into an alien landscape, kids yearn for the comforts of home. They have access to the latest medical treatments, but what would really make them feel better is mom’s chicken soup or grandma’s special pot roast. At most hospitals, that craving goes unfulfilled. But not at St. Jude.

St. Jude clinicians recognize that children respond best to treatment when they have access to the foods they love. So, if dad’s macaroni and cheese is what a patient craves, that’s exactly what is served. At St. Jude, dietitians and chefs replicate patients’ favorite dishes—just as they are made at home—by using recipes obtained from the children’s families.

“Our goal is to get patients to eat and to keep them as adequately nourished as possible,” said Ginger Carney of Clinical Nutrition. “When children come to St. Jude, going through therapy alters their taste. It alters their appetite. We try to find food not only that they can eat, but that they like.”

Proper nutrition is important for all children, but especially for those undergoing treatment at St. Jude. While their brains, bones and muscles are growing, their bodies are simultaneously fighting off catastrophic disease. During treatment, children’s immune systems may be compromised. When their white blood counts are low, they are especially vulnerable to infection.

Research has shown that well-nourished children have a higher ability to withstand infection and tolerate therapy than children who are undernourished. This innovative "home cooking" program is only one way that St. Jude staff ensure that kids are fed emotionally as well as physically. Dietitians are an integral part of each patient’s treatment team, ensuring that children undergoing treatment receive the best possible nutrition.  

In a dedicated area of the kitchen, dietary technicians, chefs and cooks prepare creative meals while upholding the highest food safety and sanitation standards. All staff in this area have undergone extensive training on preparing low-bacteria diets and other specialized needs of patients with weakened immune systems.

The Clinical Nutrition department at St. Jude participates in both daily patient care and research. Increasingly, nutrition components are being added to cancer treatment protocols, emphasizing the role of the dietitian in the multidisciplinary team treating patients with catastrophic diseases.

“The treatments that St. Jude patients undergo can cause appetite loss, nausea and mouth sores,” Chef John Gilbreath said. “By catering to the children’s cravings, we can help them stay well nourished, which is essential in helping them fight infection.”

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