Diversity's Many Faces

Diversity is an issue for operators, employees and customers. Here’s a look at how each deals with cultural challenges and opportunities.


Diversity Diversity wears many faces. In a country that has always welcomed immigrants in search of a better life, it’s no surprise that ethnic minorities make up close to one-third of the total population. Today, as operators are increasingly called upon to deal with both a workforce and a customer base that resemble a Benetton ad with peoples of many colors and cultures, the challenges facing them are more complex than ever before.

"Diversity is a learning curve for all of us," explains Mary Jaskowski, director of nutrition services at St. Mary’s Health Care, a 325-bed facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., that serves 1,000 patient meals a day and 1,500 to 1,800 meals in its retail operations.

Last year, St. Mary’s partnered with the Hunt County Literacy Council to offer a customized "English in the Workplace" program to help those employees who have limited reading skills.

"They came in and took pictures of our equipment, looked at the menus and conducted a 40-week class, three hours a week. They measured the participants’ skills at the start and again at the end, and most employees improved significantly."

"Culturally, our employees have taught us a lot about their different religions. We have a fair number of Muslims, which has been a challenge as some of them prefer not to even handle pork products. We try to accommodate that."

The presence of employees from seven different countries, she adds, has "enhanced our management team and taught us to be creative in training. Some of them don’t know American foods at all, not even what an omelet is. We do pot luck meals with them and they prepare their native foods."

At the St. Paul Public Schools, St. Paul, Minn., Nutrition Services Manager Linda Dieleman has seen "incredible stories of tragedy and triumph," she says. "We are committed to diversity. At one high school, a custodian helped a Spanish speaking foodservice employee. Now there are three Spanish speaking employees who help explain tasks or new recipes to newcomers, or how to write [information] down on the production record."

Success can mean loss of good workers, however, Dieleman adds. "Sometimes our biggest successes can mean that they will be hired away from our department. Friendly people who can communicate to others from their country and also do so in English are easily identified on our front lines."

Beth Yesford, director of food and nutrition, DME Services at Providence Hospital, a 408-bed hospital and 242-bed nursing home in Washington, D.C., has a motto for training: "Keep it simple."

Materials are printed in English and Spanish and training is done one on one, she says. "We have 110 people in Food and Nutrition in the two sites, and we’ve had to learn to respect each other’s cultures. Everybody brings dishes to our holiday pot luck party."

At Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, Interim Director of Nutrition Services John Romano has partnered with a high school to train part-time workers in his kitchen to teach English language skills.

"They need to be able to read patients’ names and to verify them with an armband check," he explains. "We offer classes in ESL. These kids are pretty bright. They’re Somalis, Russians, Sudanese, all coming in to entry-level jobs—tray assembly and delivery. Some move up to nutrition reps to help patients make meal selections."

Mary Angela Miller, administrative director of Ohio State University Medical Center and president of the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management, calls diversity "a good thing because it allows us to become more skilled in managing a diverse workforce, which is a great career builder."

Ohio State is unique, she adds, because Columbus is home to the third largest Somali population in the world and the second largest in the U.S. "It’s challenging because they speak several languages and the women wear burkhas."

Her department works to develop employees with cultural and educational barriers to help them become "more confident and they give better patient satisfaction. It’s a win-win to help them be better because it helps us be better."

This fall, a new program called Advance One will teach such skills as basic reading and writing, and how to balance a checkbook. "It helps with teamwork and customer satisfaction," says Miller. "We developed a curriculum of what our employees need to be successful in our work environment."

At Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., every dining facility has a specific culinary focus as part of a program called Destination Dining, says Director Rafi Taherian, who points out that a diverse staff prepares various cuisines for an equally diverse student population. The diversity of employees makes duplicating various ethnic flavor profiles simple, and students are offered everything from Turkish to Mexican, Latin, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Mediterranean fare without leaving campus.

A "Succession Planning" program identifies workers who want to "expand their careers," Taherian says, "and we develop and train them. They ‘shadow’ a person in the position they want to learn. We offer extensive training and financial support."

For Compass Group North America’s Director of Diversity Rahman Khan, helping develop a diverse workforce from entry-level personnel into managers is a plus that "brings creativity and innovation to the table."

Compass, he adds, has "started councils to help attract, develop and retain women leaders this year, and will have a multi-cultural emphasis in 2008. It makes good business sense," he observes, "and increasingly, our clients ask how we address diversity. It’s the right thing to do."

Harvard University Dining Services has a program called Bridge to Learning and Literacy, which offers ESL, literacy, GED and computer classes to employees. Ted Mayer, executive director of HUDS, says classes are free and workers attend ESL and literacy classes as paid time. Since it began in 2000, his employees have taken 476 classes, of which 289 were ESL.

"We encourage our staff to ‘keep us honest’ and train peers in authentic flavors and preparations of their native cuisines," Mayer notes, "and to share with our students through chef choice menu blocks of the HUDS Recipes from Homes program, which asks them to share and prepare homestyle favorites. This enhances our dining program."

Developing ethnic minorities also is important at AVI Food Systems, a Warren, Ohio-based contractor, says Director of Diversity and Inclusion Phyllis Smith. Smith notes that the company has seen a number of workers from Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine move up through its ranks, among them a sweeper and dishwasher from Poland who initially spoke no English, and later became a cook in one of AVI’s "premier" dining rooms.

The "journey toward inclusion," Smith says, stems from the family-owned company’s roots founded by the son of Greek immigrants.


Foodservice handles diversity in job trainingWe all like to see a familiar face, hear our native tongue or taste a familiar food when we’re far from home. It connects us to our roots and comforts us and makes us feel less "strange." Many noncommercial operators strive to help customers make those connections.

Keeping customers happy is what every business is all about. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Colleen Wright-Riva sees an ever-growing number of students from "international" families, drawn to New York’s Finger Lakes region to teach or work at either Cornell or nearby Ithaca College.

"Some of our Asian foodservice employees give us recipes that we incorporate into our menus," she says, "and we have an Asian couple that used to own a restaurant but sold it and came to work for us. They provide authentic Asian foods and that builds a little excitement and makes our Asian students feel great."

Wright-Riva incorporates the recipes into theme dinners to celebrate the diversity of the student population, she says, adding that at the same time, the dishes bring "comfort" to students far from their roots.

Ted Mayer, executive director of Harvard University Dining Services, also finds the diverse student body is "comforted by the ability to talk with a familiar face and/or in the language of home. Others even find a tutor for a new language they are studying in one of our native speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin or French Creole."

Having foreign-born staffers delivering trays can be beneficial, Maine Medical Center’s Interim Director of Nutrition Services John Romano, agrees, when they’re serving patients from their own countries. "It helps us because it becomes very comforting," he says, adding that it’s also useful in the cafeteria because 75% of meals prepared in the hospital are non-patient, and many visitors are foreign-born.

At Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Director of Food and Nutrition Lynne Ometer is planning a diversity fair called "Celebrating Our Differences" this fall, for which some of her employees from countries such as India and Nigeria will help to come up with recipes.

"We will be preparing some recipes that represent the most prevalent cultures among the total Emory Healthcare workforce," she explains. "One of the things I want to do as part of this initiative is to begin to raise awareness within our own department of the diversity that exists and to get persons from the different cultures we have on our staff to participate in perhaps a mini-fair of their own focused on food."

Foodservice workers at Emory are primarily African-American but also include employees from Jamaica, Guyana, Mexico, India, China, Vietnam, Nigeria and several other African nations.

In past years, dietetic interns in dining operations who hailed from different cultures "have often elected to feature food items from their cultures in our dining operations when they’ve been going through their foodservice rotation," adds Ometer. "This is always popular with our customers."

Beth Yesford, director of food and nutrition, DME Services at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., counts 14 countries of origin among the employees in her department alone. "Our cafeteria is called World’s Fair," she explains, "because of all the nationalities in the hospital. We do theme days based on their cultures and they do the prep."

Elsewhere in the metropolitan Washington market, Penny McConnell, R.D., director of food and nutrition services for Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax, Va., calls her system "very diverse."

"We do an international menu every month—this fall we’re doing Mexico and then Germany. The big thing is to always be learning about others. This country is a mosaic of different cultures. It’s very positive for the children as they go through the lunch line to see employees who look like them."

At St. Paul Public Schools, St. Paul, Minn., Nutrition Services Manager Linda Dieleman believes "diversity helps us communicate better to our customers, and we get great ideas for foods. For example, we serve jicama as one of the fresh veggie choices on the self-serve bar. Students asked us where the lime and chili powder were, so we tried that and will do so again this year."

A group of students from Somali, she continues, "shared how they enjoyed cinnamon on their rice, so this year we are piloting chili powder shakers and cinnamon shakers on the condiment bar. Due to our students’ diverse taste buds, we already offer Louisiana hot sauce, Siracha hot sauce, soy sauce and three different salad dressings."

Two mothers helped her staff develop Hmong Beef Fried Rice. "In the beginning," Dieleman says, "an individual will provide advice on how to make a recipe as authentic as possible. We often choose one or two schools to roll out the new recipe and those students particularly enjoy providing feedback. Of course a child may say ‘that’s not how my mother makes it,' so it can be a great conversation piece at lunch."

Spanish speaking employees on the staff, she adds, "mprove our customer service for students who come from Spanish speaking families."

Allentown, Pa., doesn’t have much of a cultural mix beyond its Hispanic population, says Andy Barsky, senior general manager of foodservice at Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network, but in the past year, the hospital has "definitely been reaching out to the community."

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi who was a patient met with Barsky to request that the hospital provide kosher meals. Today, Lehigh Valley offers kosher meals provided by a local vendor with name recognition in the community. To be more responsive to the small Muslim population in the area, Barsky also introduced frozen halal meals, purchased from another foodservice vendor.


Ethnic minorities comprise nearly one-third of the U.S. population today, a number estimated to grow to 50% by 2009. They come from around the globe, pursuing a dream of a better life for themselves and their families. For many, jobs in foodservice are a foothold, a means of financial support, but even more, an opportunity to learn, develop and advance. Following are four such success stories.

Foodservice handles diversity in job trainingDouglas Vasquez came to this country from El Salvador in 1995 and worked in several restaurants before joining Unidine, a foodservice management firm in Newton, Mass., nearly two years ago as a dishwasher at one of the company’s "marquee" business dining accounts. He quickly moved through the ranks to become executive chef, at one point working two jobs to support his family.

"They gave me a great opportunity," says Vasquez. "They asked me if I would like to grow and helped me move to sous chef, and then executive chef. The hardest part was learning English."

"Before, I’d worked in catering and at the pizza station of a restaurant in Boston, but I never had the opportunity to become a chef. Here, at the Café at Tufts Health Plan in Watertown, we serve 800 people at breakfast and 1,700 at lunch every day. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun." Unidine, he says, educated him in technical and computer skills for procurement, as well as menu development and production skills, and gave him additional culinary training.

"They know how to treat employees," he observes. Vasquez worked on a flexible schedule that allowed him to attend college in a business program for ESL (English as a Second Language).

Foodservice handles diversity in job trainingFor Austin Price, an Afro-American who took a part-time job as a dishwasher with Harvard University Dining Services straight out of high school, the school’s foodservice department represented stability. "I had a lot of friends who went on to college," he says, "and after they graduated, they couldn’t find jobs, and some asked me to help get them jobs at HUDS. Harvard was steady and stable and I stayed and started moving up."

From his beginnings as a union employee, he rose to become a storekeeper and today, to customer service manager. "I have 49 employees," he says. "It’s a diverse place with people from many walks of life. That’s been the biggest challenge for me—understanding how to work with all kinds of people. I learn something new every day."

The university "gives you the opportunities, but at times, you don’t know where you’re going to go," Price notes. "They offered me a way to grow but it was up to me to jump on it and take advantage of the educational opportunities. In the future, I hope to move to the next level and run my own unit."

Foodservice handles diversity in job trainingLike Price, Anh Thu Truong is moving up the ladder one step at a time.

"I want to be able to help my parents when I’m done with school," says Truong, who has held a variety of jobs, most recently as a nutrition care representative, at the 606-bed Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine.

Her family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1993, "hoping for a better future," she explains. "I want to earn a college degree to make them happy and fulfill their dreams and hopes, and to thank them for all the hard work and sacrifices they have made for us."

Truong began at the hospital as a high school senior, working on the assembly tray line and later, delivering trays to patients.

She later applied for a job in the café where she "got to do everything from the pizza station, the grill, the salad bar, and even the cashier’s station."

Last year she became a nutrition care representative, seeing patients daily and reading menu choices to them. "I got to do room service for cancer patients and maternity patients, and liked the patient contact." At the same time she began learning about nutrition and signed up for classes at Southern Maine Community College where she became an Honor Society student and will earn an associate degree in dietetic technology this winter.

Truong is applying now to a four-year college to earn her degree as a registered dietitian. "I want to be successful," she declares.

Foodservice handles diversity in job trainingThat drive for self-improvement and success also motivates Andrew Osaghae, a cook who maintains large cook-chill facility at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.

Originally from Nigeria, Andrew studied hotel management in London for several years after leaving home, but did not have the resources to acquire his certification and came to the U.S. to further his education.

At first he worked in a restaurant as a cook and, later, supervisor while trying to take courses. "I had no benefits and decided to apply for a job at Emory because I found out about their tuition reimbursement program," he says. "I began taking evening classes and Emory covered part of my tuition and my books. It was a big help."

He recently received his B.A., "something I knew I had to do," he says. At the cook-chill facility, Osaghae maintains inventory levels in the food bank that serves three hospitals, checking product freshness dates, keeping track of what is needed and taking care of transporting the food to the facilities. He hopes to move up to a higher level job and will be talking with Human Resources to find a position where he can "make a big difference because of all I’ve learned." Down the road, his goal is to receive his M.A.

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