Healthier Retail Food: Better Taste, Better Business

Nutritious and delicious benefit bottom line.

Union Hospital practices a "balanced menu"
philosophy in its dining.

When it’s lunchtime in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, folks head to Mercy Medical Center—not because they’re sick, but because they’re hungry. The cafeteria food is unexpected, tasty and made from scratch, often with local produce: one day it’s stir-fried kohlrabi with onions, cabbage and rice, another it’s traditional Vietnamese noodle bowls.

Tons of tomatoes:  At Mercy Medical, “we are getting away from convenience items and back to scratch, making recipes healthier,” says Pam Oldham, co-director of food and nutrition services.

There is an abundance of fresh, local peppers, tomatoes, lettuces and even yogurt produced by a neighboring farmer. Within the last 12 months, the Mercy cafeteria used 20,000 pounds of locally grown food. “We’re buying close to 200 pounds of local slicing tomatoes per week from a local grower,” notes Oldham.

She also ditched the deep fryers and replaced them with combi-ovens that the staff uses to make french fries and onion rings with a lot less fat. Even the local middle-schoolers appreciated the switch, choosing the healthier version of french fries over their more traditional counterparts in a blind test taste.

Not true are common misconceptions that using local food and cooking from scratch are eating away at the bottom line, or that the extra work for the kitchen requires more staff.

While no new hires were necessary, there were some initial challenges; kitchen staff had to get used to chopping vegetables instead of merely opening packages of processed foods. The employees, however, reaped the rewards of positive feedback; the cafeteria’s patrons noticed their efforts, and they actually felt proud of what they were producing, Oldham says.

Costs were barely affected. “Our cost per meal is still the same, if not a little bit less than a year ago,” Oldham says. “We have less leftovers, it’s great for the environment and cafeteria sales have gone up.”  

With the bottom line in mind, it’s really very simple. “If something doesn’t make money, we don’t keep it on the menu,” Oldham notes.

Whole foods: At Union Hospital, Cecil County in Elkton, Md., food service manager Holly Emmons has been recognized by the governor for her efforts to minimize the use of processed foods and get back to basics with a whole food, “balanced menu” philosophy. The winner of the Buy Local Agricultural Challenge Award, Emmons has increased the volume of local foods purchased and reduced “environmental consequences of conventional practices.”

Emmons runs one kitchen that prepares all the food for the coffee shop, cafeteria and the patients, keeping food quality and cooking procedures consistent.

Like other healthcare facilities looking to use more whole foods, Union Hospital employs seasonal menus. “We cook what’s in season and preserve items ourselves to extend the season,” says Emmons. So when they got their first batch of local corn in the summer, not only did Emmons’ chef serve housemade corn chowder that day, he made a vegetable stock from the husks to use later on. When strawberries are in season, Emmons makes sure they preserve some as jellies and jams for use in wintertime.

In addition, the facility now purchases 100% of the beef they use from a local farmer and “we’re almost there with poultry,” Emmons explains. She buys meats from animals raised without antibiotics and growth hormones, as well as cage-free eggs and free-range hens. “We buy the turkey and cut it up ourselves,” she adds. “We use the whole bird; we even make our own stock.”

At Union Hospital, too, the move to a healthier, sustainable menu has had minimal effect on the bottom line. “The impact of the balanced menu challenge was budget neutral,” acknowledges Emmons. “I didn’t spend more but had healthier foods. When you reduce the amount of meat you serve (the facility practices Meatless Mondays), you reduce your cost. I didn’t ask for any more money in my budget.”

And just like in Cedar Rapids, folks that aren’t hospital staff or visitors are coming to eat at Union’s cafeteria. “When you start cooking with fresh, wholesome foods, the difference shows in the taste,” says Emmons.

Small changes, big difference: People don’t always like change, but he’s making them anyway, states Jean-Gerard Delinois, administrative manager, food and nutrition department at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del. In the employee cafeteria, fish poached, grilled or broiled in white wine and lemon has replaced deep-fried, battered fish. The pizza is made with whole wheat rather than white dough. Delinois offers salads made with wheat berries or quinoa, and sets up tasting tables for employees to try these healthier—and often unfamiliar foods. Recipes include more flavorful items such as olives and scallions.

The result? Not only is Delinois running well under budget—“we’re not a profit-making business, but we do very well,” hospital staff often chooses to eat in the employee cafeteria instead of other locations. In fact, the local health inspector told Delinois that his cafeteria is one of the places she prefers to dine. “Prices are compatible, and the food is fresher and healthier,” explains Delinois.

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