How the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation is Harnessing the Power of Vegetarianism to Improve Public Health

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation  |  June 29, 2020
The Tzu Chi Medical Foundation's A Better Meal, A Better Earth campaign is raising funds to bring vegetarian lunches to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by Jennifer Chien, Monique Kuo, & Audrey Cheng
Translated by Yao-yang Tang
Edited by Monique Kuo & Dilber Shatursun
Photos provided by Henry Nhan & Shu Li Lo

As the pandemic has progressed, the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation has procured and donated personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing supplies to more than a thousand medical institutions across the United States. In meeting with many of their representatives, staff and volunteers at Tzu Chi Medical discovered how constricted time was for lunch breaks at healthcare facilities. As a result, a new initiative was born: “A Better Meal, A Better Earth,” where, beginning May 19, 2020, Tzu Chi Medical began donating vegetarian lunches to healthcare workers alongside PPE donations.

Gentle Guidance In The Face Of Disaster

The founder of Tzu Chi, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, has illuminated that “now that we are faced with this outbreak, we should all call upon people to uphold a vegetarian diet, be mindful, and give love to others.” This is emphasized by the fact that the new coronavirus disease is likely to have a zoonotic, or animal, origin, emerging from the killing of animals for consumption. Her guidance in this respect, stems from an imperative that relates to ethics as much as it does public and personal health. But, encouraging the public to adopt a sudden dietary change would not be easy. Tzu Chi Medical had its brainstorming work cut out for it.

After careful thought, the team came up with a plan to distribute vegetarian lunch boxes to healthcare workers. The rationale would be:

to honor the hard work of healthcare workers through the pandemic

to spark discussions of ethical eating and of the humanitarian philosophy behind Tzu Chi’s missions

to encourage healthcare professionals to become models for their patients, continuing the cycle of compassion

Before launching officially, however, Mary Keh, a veteran volunteer, wanted to test the concept. Staff member Bessie Nhan, accompanied by a small crew of volunteers, then visited Methodist Hospital of Southern CaliforniaGarfield Medical Center, and Alhambra Hospital Medical Center to share their first rounds of vegetarian meals. Volunteers talked to the representatives of the hospital not only about the reasons why Tzu Chi is donating PPE but also the benefits of vegetarianism. The gesture and the resulting discussion helped bond them.

Bessie Nhan (right), a Tzu Chi Medical staff member, recruits the owner of Yuan Shian Vegetarian Food Inc. Sam Tsang (left), to cook and pack vegetarian boxed meals at a discount to support the campaign.

Yet, all this effort would be under the strictest of health regulations, as meals must be prepared by licensed restaurants or food companies in commercial spaces. Bessie would help make arrangements with the Yuan Shian Vegetarian Food, Inc., to make boxed meals for Tzu Chi at a most favorable price.

Deeper Friendships

Aside from lunchbox drop offs, Tzu Chi Medical has invited representatives of medical institutions to join them for a sit-down vegetarian lunch while they pick up their PPE donations from volunteers. This includes Michael P. Sullivan, Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer of the Orthopedic Institute for Children (OIC), who stopped by for lunch on May 19. Also present were Dr. William Keh, his wife Mary, and Dr. Stephen Denq, Chief Medical Officer of Tzu Chi Medical.

With conversation on the philosophy behind Tzu Chi and its relief through the pandemic, the group enjoyed their vegetarian meal. Learning of Master Cheng Yen’s advocacy for vegetarianism, Michael remarked that the Master seemed to be a wise spiritual leader, and that “what she advocates is what the world needs.”

As for the OIC, it began providing care for children internationally 50 years ago. In 2019 alone, it treated 18 children from foreign countries. The expenses, which may include surgery, overall medical care, food, and lodging, are paid entirely by the OIC. When Michael learned that Tzu Chi Medical had been conducting international medical outreaches in Latin America, he indicated that he would be happy to accept young orthopedic patients as referrals for international treatment. What a beautiful way to partner and give back!

Under the invitation of Tzu Chi Medical volunteer Mary Keh, Michael P. Sullivan, Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer of the Orthopedic Institute for Children, came for a socially distanced vegetarian lunch at the Tzu Chi Medical office. Not only did he enjoy his meal, he took another lunchbox for his wife to try.

When they all finished their lunch, Mary encouraged Michael to take one home for his wife to try. Michael thought his wife would actually enjoy it quite a lot and thanked Mary and Tzu Chi Medical for all their thoughtfulness.

Bringing Aid to a TIMA Doctor’s Institution

That same afternoon, volunteers brought PPE donations to the Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center in Baldwin Park, CA. They also took boxed veggie meals with them for the management team. Eugene Cho, deputy superintendent for administration, Dr. Victor Cheng, Reyna Dellara, director of public relations, and John Field, PR associate, were there to welcome Tzu Chi Medical.

Dr. William Keh (left) presents a plaque of appreciation for the Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center’s support of Tzu Chi Medical’s work over the years to Eugene Cho (center left), senior vice president & area manager. Dr. Victor Cheng (center right) and Mary Keh join them.

Since getting his medical license in 1996, Dr. Cheng has been a member of TIMA USA. His grandfather, also a doctor, used to keep poor patients at his home for free treatment. When Dr. Cheng first took part in a Tzu Chi activity, he saw how volunteers sincerely treated the needy with a compassion that reminded him of his grandfather’s life’s work. This propelled him to join Tzu Chi in its medical missions.

Aside from that, Dr. Cheng has worked at the Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center for more than 20 years. He has helped Kaiser and Tzu Chi Medical Foundation build an excellent working relationship. During their PPE drop off, Dr. Keh, CEO of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, presented a plaque to the Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center recognizing its support of Tzu Chi over the years, including the provision of grants to operate its signature mobile clinics and build healthier communities.

After eating a meal from Tzu Chi, Reyna reached back out to Tzu Chi to express her thanks for such a filling, energizing meal as well as precious PPE.

A Welcome Relief

Dr. David Nelson, medical director at Barlow Respiratory Hospital, visited Tzu Chi Medical Foundation on May 22 to deliver a thank you letter in person, sharing photos of the Barlow medical team wearing the donated PPE and a donation from his team. Dr. Nelson explained that he and his colleagues hoped it would help Tzu Chi Medical purchase more PPE.

Of course, he sat down for noodle lunch! Dr. Nelson loved his meal and expressed he could not thank Tzu Chi enough for helping his hospital when it most needed it. In fact, he and his team pledged 38 boxed veggie meals to be given to more healthcare workers in need. He also pledged to make at least 40 of his meals over the next month vegetarian ones, embracing the spirit of the campaign.

Charlene Chu, center, administrative director of Acute Care Services at Beverly Hospital, thanks Tzu Chi Medical for again donating PPE to her staff.

Then, on May 29, Charlene Chu, administrative director of Acute Care Services at Beverly Hospital, and her colleagues Nina Hong and Jerrica Jaimes visited Tzu Chi Medical. Nina, a cardiology technician, first contacted Tzu Chi volunteers in Northridge in April. She told them that her hospital had 27 COVID-19 patients and it was short on PPE. In the interest of time, Dr. Keh and Mary immediately made arrangements to have 20 protective gowns sent to the hospital. The women expressed their thanks.

As if not having PPE weren’t bad enough for Charlene’s staff, a mundane matter—getting food to eat at meal time—had troubled them day in and day out, too. She said, “our hospital can’t provide food [for staff], so our employees have to feed themselves. Going out to eat was an option, but medical workers had to take off their protective equipment before going out, and after meals they have to put on the entire set of protective equipment again. It was daunting.”

A Father's Love Continues

After having already requested N95s and other forms of PPE for his daughter and her colleagues, who work at the ICU of Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, CA, Ken Larsen returned for more. This time, he was accompanied by his good friends Lynn Huang and Tim Chang, a Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s attorney.

Ken Larsen sits down for lunch with Dr. William Keh. Ken Larsen comes to the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation again to request more PPE for the intensive care unit of Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, CA, where his daughter works.

Ken pointed out that PPE was still in short supply at that ICU since his last visit. Face shields were nowhere to be seen, he explained, and every N95 respirator was expected to be worn for five days before changing to a new one. He choked up at the mention of such hardship and health hazards. He was proud that his own daughter was doing her best job at that ICU, but he was also worried sick about her safety.

Tim Chang, an attorney, sponsors 25 veggie meals for the medical staff of the intensive care unit of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. After finishing his own lunch at Tzu Chi Medical, Ken Larsen delivered the sponsored lunches and PPE donations from Tzu Chi Medical to his daughter's hospital. His daughter and her colleagues sent back this photo to show their appreciation.

Tzu Chi Medical volunteers urged Ken, Lynn, and Tim to spread the word on the A Better Meal, A Better Earth campaign. Tim donated 25 meals on the spot, to be delivered to ICU medical workers at the Valley Presbyterian Hospital. Ken tasted a meal right then and there, and he couldn’t praise it enough. He personally delivered the boxed meals to his daughter’s hospital.

A Few Short Days, A Big Impact

Altogether, from May 20 to 29, nearly 2,000 veggie meals were pledged to support frontline heroes – a feat that Stephen Huang, Tzu Chi’s Global Director of Volunteer Affairs, marveled as only sheer solidarity could pull off.

Dr. William Keh expressed that, “I hope that by giving medical workers a chance to taste vegetarian meals, they may find the food quite palatable, healthy, and earth-friendly, and they may therefore become vegetarian.” Mary, too, pointed out that she was glad that the A Better Meal, A Better Earth campaign had a great start. It is her hope that the campaign encourages those who care for our health to make healthier choices themselves, and teach us all the same.

You can help us provide more meals to the frontlines and take the Very Veggie Movement pledge.