Special report: Hospital food goes gourmet

January 18, 2013
by Nancy Ryerson, Staff Writer
Sustainable food services offer tasty meals and green choices beyond lime Jell-O.

Unless you work at a hospital, a hospital cafeteria is not likely to be high on your list of places to go for lunch. With meal options second only to airline food for their reputation of being inedible, some health care facilities are introducing new menus and taking steps to serve up tastier offerings. Visitors to those facilities are often pleasantly surprised to find options like Alaskan wild salmon nestled in a bed of kale, or lavender scones made with ingredients freshly picked from the hospital’s roof garden. And the groundbreaking food services at these facilities aren’t just delicious – they’re healthy for patients, visitors and even the planet.

“We all know that food in hospitals has a bad rap, with things like Jell-O and gray meat,” says Michelle Gottlieb, co-coordinator of Healthy Food in Health Care, an organization committed to helping hospitals offer nutritious and sustainable foods. “We started looking into the cafeteria and at what’s put onto the patient trays, saying this isn’t right. Hospitals should be healing people, not serving this kind of food.” Five of the hospitals profiled here have taken the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge. Among other goals, those who take the pledge promise to work with local farmers and suppliers, increase the hospital’s offering of fruits, vegetables and other minimally processed foods, minimize food waste and educate employees and patients. The goal is to use food services as a part of prevention-based health care by reducing unhealthy food as well as the toxins and pollutants that turn up in the food system. More than 400 hospitals and seven food service contractors have taken the pledge so far. That means there have been some promising steps made to cut down on the carbon footprint of hospital food services while providing healthy, enjoyable food people would actually consider ordering for takeout.

Ashleigh Pederson at the
Garden Cafe. Image courtesy of
Adventist Health.

Adventist Medical Center
Location: Portland, Ore.
Sustainable since: Its inception. Because vegetarianism is a pillar of the Seventh-day Adventist church, the cafeteria has been vegetarian since the hospital opened. The all-vegan LivingWell Bistro opened in October of 2011.
Sample dish: Quinoa bowl with black beans, kale or collard greens and homemade pico de gallo.
Food service highlights: Though patients at the hospital have a meat option, eating animals is eschewed in the rest of the hospital. The LivingWell Bistro doesn’t even offer animal products. “It’s the first plant-based café on a health care facility campus in the U.S. that we’re aware of,” says Ashleigh Pedersen, food service manager. Less meat means a smaller environmental footprint, and the team works to get its hands on local ingredients whenever possible. Currently, the cafeteria uses offerings from 19 local vendors. Cutting out meat also means cutting costs. “If you look at tofu, beans or quinoa as a protein source, steak or chicken is going to have a lot higher cost per ounce,” says Pederson. And whether they’re cooking up vegan tacos or pizza, the hospital’s award-winning chefs work to make sure visitors know eating vegetarian means more than just crunching on salads. Plus, guests ordering food to go don’t need to feel guilty about the packaging since the hospital always provides compostable containers.

The kitchen at Fletcher Allen
Health Care uses vegetables from
the hospital’s roof-top farm.

Fletcher Allen Health Care
Location: Burlington, Vt.
Sustainable since: 2006, when the hospital became one of the first to sign the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge.
Accolades and awards: Winner of the HFHC Public Policy Award in 2011.
Sample dish: Artichoke ravioli served topped with a house-smoked roasted pulled pork with house-roasted tomatoes.
Food service highlights: Fletcher Allen first became interested in sustainability when obesity and its connection to health care costs began making headlines. “People were also starting to talk about climate change and how it relates to food, so it was kind of a convergence on a lot of food-related health issues that we thought we could make an impact on,” says director of nutrition services Diane Imrie. Today, Imrie says each person on her management team has taken on a sustainable mission, whether it’s reducing antibiotics in the food supply, cutting back on waste or providing sustainable protein sources. And of course, the cooks focus on flavor. Even though their cooking methods are quite healthy – no fryers allowed – patients and customers alike praise the taste. “They are really, really surprised,” says Imrie. “And that’s the part I wish we could work on across the country because they shouldn’t be surprised, it should all be fabulous.”

A buffet at John Muir Health.

John Muir Health
Location: Walnut Creek, Calif.
Sustainable since: 2008 when the facility signed the Healthy Food in Health Care.
Accolades and awards: Winner of the HFHC Food, Climate, Health Connection Award in 2011.
Sample dish: Whole grain casserole with mixed vegetables and roasted squash.
Food service highlights: Chefs, hospital staff and administrators are all on board with the hospital’s sustainable mission, Sandra Rigney, director of nutrition services says. “I think it takes the entire team to make it happen,” she says. The team started out by seeking locally sourced produce, switching to eggs from cage-free hens and bringing in eco-friendly disposables. Next, it reduced the amount of meat on its menus and incorporated more fruits and vegetables. The hospital has found that planning menus around in-season vegetables and fruits, like persimmons for winter, helps keep eco-friendly food affordable. When it does serve meat, many of the dishes are made with free-range, organic chicken. The hospital is currently seeking a source for sustainable beef.

Anders Grant, RD helps find
sustainable farms for Carroll
Hospital Center.

Carroll Hospital Center
Location: Westminster, Md.
Sustainable since: 2007 when the facility took the Healthy Food in Health Care Balanced Menu pledge.
Accolades and awards: Winner of the HFHC Food, Climate, Health Connection Award in 2011.
Sample dish: Shepherd’s pie using local, sustainable beef.
Food service highlights: Members of the hospital’s food sustainability committee scout out farms to find sources for meat and produce. Committee member Anders Grant, RD is currently on the hunt for a sustainable goat cheese farmer. “We want to make sure that what they say lines up with what they’re really doing,” says Grant. She says that while the sustainable food she finds is generally more expensive than the hospital’s former selections, it’s not too hard to make small changes that result in cost savings. Instead of offering carved
tenderloin from a locally sourced cow, for example, the hospital might make a beef stew, mixing the beef with other ingredients to extend its value, Grant explains.

A woman enjoys Senior Suppers
at New Milford Hospital.

New Milford Hospital
Location: New Milford, Conn.
Sustainable since: 2006, when the hospital founded Plow to Plate, which connects farmers with the hospitals and restaurants in the area.
Sample dish: Chicken salad with dried cranberries.
Food service highlights: Plow to Plate started when the hospital decided to use area farms to help build a sustainable food system. “We realized we could create healthier diets, support our farmers and send a message that eating nutritious whole foods is a path to disease prevention,” says Susan Twombly, coordinator of external affairs. Besides bringing food from plow to plate, the hospital also delivers meals from roof to plate. Its roof garden grows vegetables and herbs that are used in the cafeteria — the lavender found in the facility’s popular lavender scones is harvested from the roof garden. Overall, the hospital’s food services today are a far cry from what hospital chefs found when they first arrived. “We were coming into an organization that was old school,” says Chef Kerry Gold. “They were opening cans and throwing them into a pan.” Now, everything is made from scratch, even soup stock and deli meat.

Lunch is served at Overlake
Hospital Medical Center.
(Credit Scott Areman.)

Overlake Hospital Medical Center
Location: Bellevue, Wash.
Sustainable since: 2007 when the hospital took the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge. The greening process started with retail areas, the Atrium Café and Stanzas Café, but soon spread to patient menus.
Sample dish: Thai shrimp noodle salad.
Food service highlights: Overlake has an extensive list of sustainable improvements it has made, from switching to local, cage-free, organic eggs to removing all deepfried items from patient menus and hosting “meatless Monday” every week. The medical center also authored a comprehensive food policy to provide a framework for sustaining those changes and helping to inform vendors about what the center will and will not buy. Besides being committed to the planet, Overlake is also deeply involved in making sure patients are eating something that makes them feel good. “We will do anything for our patients,” says Christopher Linaman, executive chef. “Including walking across the street to Whole Foods and procuring exactly what they want, in the unlikely circumstance we don’t have it already.” In the future, Overlake Hospital would like its dining services to be completely free of GMO ingredients and foods.