By Alan Richman
Perhaps the most common question heard by hospital and nursing home patients is, “What’s the food like?”
Once upon a time, this query would have elicited only negative responses, ranging from “bland” to “boring” to “beastly.” These days, however, in-patient and long-term-living menus are sparking more interest and more praise—not only for their flavor but also for their nutritional value.
It’s unlikely that anyone, even now, would check into a hospital or senior citizens’ home just to find something good to eat. But it is comforting for patients and residents to know they no longer have to lock up their taste buds along with their watches and other valuables. Food at healthcare facilities has come a long way.
Farming it out
Generally speaking, there are two types of foodservice operations in healthcare facilities: contracted and self-operated. Cura Hospitality—a recently acquired unit of Elior North America (formerly known as TrustHouse)—based in Orefield, Pa., is among the more prominent contract providers.
As a testament to its quality, in 2012, Cura client Providence Point, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Pittsburgh, hosted a highly acclaimed five-course dinner for more than 100 of the Steel City’s top kitchen bosses.
Prepared by the company’s executive chefs, the dinner featured such delicacies as poached pear goat cheese crisps; lobster cakes fra diavolo; rack of lamb tenderloin; Brussels sprouts sautéed with shallots, garlic, bacon and olive oil; and chocolate ganache with homemade biscotti.
“That dinner was prepared with great pride and under tremendous stress,” says Cheryl Rastetter, general manager of dining at Providence Point. “The guest of honor was Byron Bardy, who had recently retired but was once the only certified master chef in Pittsburgh.”
In fact, Providence Point’s cuisine has garnered so many fans that its catering business has “really exploded,” according to Rastetter.
“We serve 405 meals a day for personal care and healthcare needs, and 445 meals daily for independent living residents,” she says. “In addition, we cater 38 to 50 events per month. These include small weddings, family reunions, memorials, board meetings, Super Bowl parties, private dinners, baby showers and corporate meetings. This has become a challenge because our community’s design is not set up for the extensive catering. We are a country club within a CCRC. And just like a club, we never say no.”
Meanwhile, Phoebe Terrace in Allentown, Pa., another CCRC associated with Cura, also does a significant amount of catering—not only for residents and their families, but for fundraising as well.
“We prepare everything with fresh produce and ingredients,” says Kim Wilson, director of dining services and executive chef, adding that all menus are planned through focus groups with the residents. “We have monthly ‘Talk with the Chef’ sessions, and we rarely end a meeting without requests, suggestions and even recipes that can be incorporated into our daily operation.”
Among the resident-recommended recipes now present on Phoebe’s menus are a lamb stew that Wilson says is “chunkier than most,” sautéed salmon scampi over brown rice, and a popular side dish of cranberry/walnut stuffing.
One trend that originated with the professional staff is increased use of lesser-known roasted vegetables, such as turnips, golden beets, tricolored carrots (with stems) and cauliflower with garlic butter. “Our goal is to tempt residents with healthier, more intriguing choices, and it’s working,” Wilson explains.
Liberal use of fresh herbs characterizes the cooking at Pittsburgh-based St. Clair Hospital, another Cura facility, which has 328 acute-care beds and averages between 600 and 700 patient meals each day. “We rely heavily on cilantro, rosemary, basil, thyme and more, not just for flavor, but also for appearance,” says Joe Landolina, general manager for dining. “Some of our most popular dishes are a scrambled-egg breakfast skillet with red and green pepper, white onion, cheddar cheese and home fries; a grilled, marinated sirloin steak that we serve with thickened beef broth; and macaroni and cheese, our comfort food specialty.”
Touting the outside vendor route to foodservice, Mitch Possinger, Cura’s founder and president, says the company focuses on two goals simultaneously—allowing for operational autonomy at the local level, and providing the strength of a global organization through added financial resources and tools. Being part of a large enterprise also affords more career mobility, he adds, helping Cura to attract top talent.
Aramark, a $15 billion global multi-industry provider of food, facilities and uniform services, stresses many of the same arguments when prospecting for new clients.
“As hospitals face continued consolidation and cost pressure, our business model helps them create a greater level of foodservice standardization and quality across their operations to drive not only financial efficiency, but also better patient satisfaction outcomes,” says Aramark spokesperson Chris Collom.
Going it alone
While a hefty percentage of healthcare locations rely on companies such as Cura and Aramark for their foodservice, many prefer to keep it in-house.
Serving approximately 1,700 meals a day, Freehold, N.J.-based CentraState Healthcare System is a not-for-profit health organization affiliated with the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Family Medicine Residency Program. In addition to a 284-bed acute care teaching hospital, it operates an outpatient center, and three senior living communities.
“Deanna Curry, our executive chef, and her staff are always looking for new, trendy items, and, thankfully, they’re very good at that,” says Gary Triolo, director of food and nutrition services. “Our restaurant-style room service menu is measured through the Press Ganey patient satisfaction survey process, and our overall satisfaction scores range from the high 80th percentile to the mid-90th percentile. For the patients, we do our best to keep everything low-fat and low-sodium, but still tasty. As a result, many selections could be allowable for most diets.”
One of his proudest accomplishments, Triolo says, was “taking over a new, outsourced and failing café at our attached ambulatory campus. We transformed this café into a fresh-and-healthy-style café where a different ‘nutrilicious’ hot meal is presented daily. Each selection is nutritionally balanced, and the calorie count is under 550.”
High-end catered events are important showcases for the department’s capabilities. “The best compliment, in my book, is when someone asks, ‘What catering company did you use?’ says Triolo. “That’s the best! If you hear that, you know you and your team did a great job.”
An even larger institution, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, with 1,300 beds on two campuses, prepares and serves more than 10,000 meals per day. Its Nutrition Services Department feeds not only patients but also visitors to 10 retail cafés, according to Drew Patterson, culinary director.
An American Culinary Federation certified executive chef, Patterson heads a staff that includes more than 40 formally trained culinary professionals, plus numerous registered dietitians and a large number of support personnel.
The medical center finds flexible ways to satisfy customers’ needs, says Patterson, from online ordering and mini-meals to all-day breakfast availability. The idea is to keep up with consumer trends while still managing efficiencies needed in a healthcare setting.
Focus on wellness
At the 450-bed University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, “we serve more than 1,000 meals daily and accommodate over 25 different diets,” says Soi Wong, patient room service manager. Menus are created with input from a Health and Wellness Committee, with daily and weekly specials. Patients seeking a healthier regimen appreciate offerings of organic foods and antibiotic-free poultry and meat, Wong reports. Menus feature everything from grab-and-go, to snacks, to full meals and even catering options. Starbucks coffee and espresso are also available in the cafeteria, according to Zack Cross, café manager.
Software from The CBORD Group is used to build menus and prepare recipes that are compliant with evidence-based nutrition. “We’re also working to implement Net Nutrition, through CBORD, which will allow customers and patients to have online access to the nutrition information and ingredients of all of our menu items,” says Charlotte Furman, manager of wellness and technology. A blog on the hospital’s intranet site, written by registered dietitians, educates employees and patients about such topics as organic foods and sustainably raised proteins.
What it all boils down to is wellness, according to the medical center’s director of food and nutrition, Charles Zielinski. “Our guiding motto,” he says, “is improving the health of our patients, staff and community, one meal at a time.”
About the Author
Alan Richman, former editor/associate publisher of Whole Foods magazine, is a freelance journalist based in New Jersey. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.