Catherine Austin: Serving others

Catherine Austin serves veterans by focusing on her employees.


Catherine Austin has energized the foodservice department at the Memphis VA Medical Center by:

  • fostering an environment for learning by creating an employee computer lab in the kitchen
  • encouraging her staff to take on new projects such as a chef of the month program
  • starting initiatives such as a dietetic internship program and reworking the ER meal service
  • improving patient satisfaction scores by working on customers service with the department's tray deliverers

In his second Inaugural Address, one month before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln called on Americans, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” That phrase, the basis of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ mission statement, is something Catherine Austin, R.D., chief, nutrition and food services for the 270-bed Memphis VA Medical Center, takes to heart.

Austin’s approach to providing the best customer service to the veterans she serves starts with her own staff and making sure they have the best training and opportunities for advancement.

Employees matter: Kimberly Thomas, R.D., clinical specialist dietitian, says, “Ms. Austin encourages her staff to take leadership courses, seminars and attend conferences in order to better themselves. She encourages employees to apply for internal promotions versus hiring candidates from outside. She helps employees develop their career goals and is always willing to listen to new ideas.”

One way Austin helps develop her staff is through the medical center’s educational services, which offers training programs, including a School At Work program that teaches employees basics in math and reading. “We are very dedicated to making sure that our employees are included in classes just like everyone else in the medical center,” Austin says. “In food services you can’t say, ‘I’m going to put this file aside and come back to it in an hour after I finish my class.’”

Austin says she encouraged her employees to participate in these educational opportunities, but no one took advantage of them because they either didn’t want to leave their fellow employees short-staffed or because they were intimidated by the program, particularly computers. To allay that fear, Austin set up an employee computer lab in the kitchen.

Austin says her employees were still hesitant to use the computers. So the department used its high school and college student workers to help Austin’s older employees learn how to use the computers. “[The lab] gave them the skills to do a better job in [food services] and have the skills they need to go outside [the department],” Austin says.

Equipped with computer skills and with Austin’s encouragement, several food services employees are either enrolled or have completed the medical center’s educational classes.

Team building: “To me, this award is really foodservice department of the month because I don’t do anything by myself,” Austin says. “Even if it’s something that only I can do, I will still try to pull someone else in to help me with it or mentor them so that when it’s their turn they can do it.”

Under Austin’s leadership—she has been the chief since 2004—the food services department has implemented many new programs, most of which have been completed under the helm of one of Austin’s dietitians.

“We have a really good department and everyone participates and contributes,” Austin says. “I might have a germ of an idea and throw it out there, and [the staff] runs with it. It’s all about finding the right resources, helping to break down the barriers or challenges and keeping [the staff] positive and focused.”

One of those programs was “chef of the month.” Although the hospital doesn’t yet have a professional chef, Austin decided she would help her cooks get in a chef’s frame of mind by allowing them to be the “chef” of the month. Any food services employee can be the chef. That person is given one day to serve a lunch menu they’ve created. A card with the “chef’s” name, bio, photo and meal explanation is included on each patient tray.

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