What’s happening in Healthcare Food Service
Anyone who has lingering doubts about the overall quality of food being prepared in America’s hospitals today should know this: In March the Henry Ford Health System, in Michigan, sold its catalog of 500 recipes to the New Delhi National Capital Region. The urban center is going to adapt the recipes to Indian cuisine and sell the foods in corporate dining settings and, later, in other venues such as schools.
The deal indicates a sea change in healthcare foodservice: Hospital administrators are becoming proud of the foods they serve patients, visitors, and staff. It is becoming harder for people to joke about hospital food because in systems such as Henry Ford, the quality mirrors what you find on the “outside.” Here are five trends that are driving this commitment to quality.
Retail is king
The dynamics of hospital foodservice have changed over the past 10 years. Where once a foodservice department put the bulk of its efforts--and budget--into patient meals, now the opposite is true. According to industry reports, as much as 65% of a hospital's food service budget is spent on retail foodservice.
As a result, more hospitals are looking at inventive ways to build retail sales. For example, at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, foodservice director Dan Henroid has scattered small retail units strategically throughout the building. One, Moffitt Cafe Express, is a converted trash room and generates nearly $2 million in annual sales.
At Castle Rock Adventist Hospital in Colorado, foodservice director Lisa Poggas, R.D., created a wait-service restaurant calledManna that is so highly regarded that people came into the hospital just to eat there.
Healthy eating is in--no, really
It might seem strange to celebrate this as a trend, but it wasn’t so long ago that most hospitals’ cafeterias served as much fatty, fried and otherwise unhealthy foods as any other type of food service. That has been slowly changing, and the Affordable Care Act, with its emphasis on preventing disease instead of just treating it, has hospitals accelerating their efforts.
“Fresh, from-scratch cooking, overall healthier menu selections, vegetarian and gluten-free offerings, easily accessible nutrition information and portion control,” is what Mitch Possinger, president of Pennsylvania-based Cura Hospitality, says is the norm in healthcare. Other foodservice contractors—healthcare foodservice is about 35% contracted—echo this. Sodexo, the Maryland-based management firm, has an entire program, called Mindful Eating, dedicated to improving both the health and the quality of healthcare food.
One organization, Healthcare Without Harm, has a Healthy Food in Healthcare program that asks hospitals sign a pledge that they will commit to serving healthier and more sustainable foods. To date, 550 hospitals and seven food management companies have made the commitment.
Chefs as status symbols
As hospitals work to ramp up the quality of both patient and cafeteria food, many have turned to restaurant chefs, either on a full-time basis or as consultants, to help rewrite menus, introduce new items and upgrade the quality of service and presentation.
In 2012, Watertown Regional Medical Center in southern Wisconsin went so far as to hire a chef to recreate the entire foodservice program to more resemble a restaurant.
Justin Johnson introduced room service, opened a 95-seat restaurant off the hospital lobby, implemented a foodservice program in which virtually everything is made from scratch, and planted an 11,000-square-foot garden that supplies many of the vegetables and herbs used in the hospital's kitchen.
Like most segments of the foodservice industry, many healthcare organizations have embraced the “buy-local” movement. Hospitals such as St. Charles Medical Center in Oregon partner with local farms in Community Supported Agriculture. They buy into a collective and get weekly deliveries of whatever items are in season.
Others, like the aforementioned Watertown Regional Medical Center, have taken the next step and constructed their own on-site gardens. Hospitals in more urban areas have taken to rooftops to build small herb gardens.
And then there is Overlook Medical Center, in Summit, N.J. There, foodservice director Michael Atanasio is using the roof to raise his own bees, harvesting the honey for use in menu items. The department also uses the beeswax to make lip balm and hand lotion.
When it was introduced in a few hospitals about 20 years ago, skeptics dismissed it as a novelty and an unworkable model for a large-scale hospital. Now, after a rather slow start, it's difficult to find a major medical center that doesn't have some form of on-demand patient foodservice.
"It's a great way to boost patient satisfaction," says Tony Almeida, director of foodservice at Brunswick, N.J.'s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, one of the first facilities to install room service. "It's a little more labor-intensive, but it does cut down on food cost."
Typically, like hotel room service, patients call a special number when they are ready to place an order. Meals are usually delivered within 30 to 45 minutes. Unlike many hotels, most hospitals limit the hours during which patients can order food--usually 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Some healthcare centers, such as University of North Carolina Hospitals, have tied their patient menus to their retail fare, allowing patients--within dietary limits-- to order anything that employees and visitors can buy in the hospital's cafeterias.