Consumer demand is driving big changes in hospital food.
From local ingredients and partnerships with farmers to faster delivery, health systems in the Greater Lehigh Valley are taking advantage of eat-local initiatives and digital technologies.
“Baby boomers are a driving part of the changes to hospital food and they don’t want to eat grandma’s food. They want a food experience regardless of where they are,” said Margaret Kipe, director of nutrition services at Reading Hospital in West Reading.
Kipe said hospital food once had a reputation for being “the worst food on the planet.”
The results – bright crisp vegetables and artfully arranged plates – are light-years beyond from yesteryear’s overcooked green beans, tasteless mashed potatoes, dried-out chicken or tired-looking turkey sandwiches.
An estimated 3 million baby boomers will hit retirement age every year for the next 20 years, according to a report released by the American Hospital Association.
And many who have already reached the standard retirement age of 65 will likely have a need to stay – and eat – in a hospital or health care setting.
CREATIVE FARE, LOCAL FLAIR
Kipe said the tide turned about 10 years ago in favor of better ways to source and produce patient meals. Ever since, health care professionals have changed the way food ingredients are sourced, prepared and delivered to patients.
Reading Hospital sources much of its produce and ingredients from farms in nearby Lancaster County, Kipe said.
At St. Luke’s University Health Network, Thomas Boyd said about 60 percent of the fresh produce comes from the St. Luke’s Rodale Institute Organic Farm as part of a Farm to Hospital Initiative founded in 2014.
The St. Luke’s Rodale farm is located on about 11 acres at the St. Luke’s Anderson Campus property in Bethlehem Township.
Boyd is senior district manager/health care division for Metz Culinary management in Dallas, Luzerne County. Metz works with St. Luke’s to provide “restaurant-inspired hospitality” services, St. Luke’s officials said.
The St. Luke’s partnership with Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township, Berks County, includes a full-time farmer and staff to work on the organic farm at the Anderson Campus.
Deborah Cooper, St. Luke’s network clinical nutritional manager, said a more health-conscious public benefits from St. Luke’s efforts through in-patient meals as well as through farm stands open to staff and the public, stocked with the same fresh local produce used in the health system’s cafeterias.
She said growing local produce to meet the needs of St Luke’s hospitals had a ripple effect. “It’s a benefit and a plus for us, for staff and patients and for the environment,” Cooper said.
At Lehigh Valley Health Network in Salisbury Township, arrangements with local growers to provide fresh, locally sourced ingredients for its patient and cafeteria meals were essential to patient satisfaction, said Kimberly Procaccino, Sodexo nutrition director at LVHN. She said gardens on site were used for salad greens and herbs. Sodexo is LVHN’s food services provider.
MADE TO ORDER
Ordering is scientific with the room service model used by LVHN, St. Luke’s and Reading. It ensures personalized attention and nutritional expertise is available to each patient. The model also coordinates efforts for health care, food service and nutrition providers.
“We can optimize their selections to meet their nutritional therapy and negotiate orders from a wide variety of choices,” Procaccino said.
Most hospital kitchens operate from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Patients may use a digital system or their phones to place their orders any time during that window.
“It’s restaurant style and patients can select and place their orders,” Procaccino said.
She said coordinating hot and cold choices and prepping them to arrive from five minutes to 33 minutes after ordering ensures food doesn’t languish on service.
Rather than making food preparation and delivery more challenging, Kipe said the process is easier.
“Instead of chasing exceptions, everything is an exception. You don’t have a lot of trays going out all at the same time,” Kipe said.
The changes also allow hospitals to meet the special needs of their patients.
LVHN has a gluten-free food prep station and caters to the dietary needs and desires of patients from around the world. “We made fufu for a patient from South Africa,” Procaccino said. Fufu (pronounced foo-foo) is a staple food in many African countries. It is made from green plantain flour and cassava (yucca) root.
It is not just the food that is changing. So are perceptions of working in hospital food service, once seen as a culinary dead end.
Most hospital head chefs today have culinary degrees, and working in health care is seen as an attractive career with benefits and regular hours.
“Years ago you had Army and Navy cooks work the line – if you had one of those you could feed a hospital. Today you have trained executive chefs,” Kipe said.