Eskenazi Health: The hospital that gives back

Eskenazi Health

At Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis, ensuring the health of the community means promoting the whole person. Protecting not only physical wellness but economic prosperity is paramount.

The Eskenazi foodservice staff’s influence stretches far beyond its walls, as the hospital is a big participant in community programs such as Meals on Wheels. The hospital has also ramped up its local ingredient procurement exponentially in just three years. Read on to see how it’s done just that.

Photographs: Eskenazi Health

Catering to the community

Eskenazi Health

“More than 18% of people in our county are food-insecure, so we feel a real responsibility,” says Tom Thaman, director of food and nutrition services for Eskenazi Health. “We have an opportunity to make a difference in our community, and we take that very seriously.”

Eskenazi owes its very existence to the community. The referendum on government funding for the complex went to a public vote in 2009, with 85% of the community voting in support of its construction.

“Without that public support we couldn’t be here, and we want those taxpayer dollars to support Indiana physically, financially and economically,” Thaman says. “The total health of the community is at the core of everything we do.”

Local sourcing

Eskenazi Health

One fundamental way the hospital puts community first is by shopping local. In 2014, only 3% of food dollars went to products sourced from within 250 miles of the hospital. By the end of 2017, more than 40% of food dollars were spent on products from Indiana specifically.

“We were lucky that our CEO Lisa Harris pushed us, and I’m proud that we got boots on the ground to make it happen,” says Seth Grant, associate director of food and nutrition. “We went to all of these local farms, and I literally pet the pork.”

Of course, Grant, Thaman and staff couldn’t simply drive the roads of Indiana to source everything Eskenazi needs for patient, nonpatient and Meals on Wheels meals. Instead, they partnered with suppliers, including a local produce and specialty foods outfit.

“We get the best bang for our buck by putting those farmers into distribution with someone who can support them at a higher level,” Grant explains. “The math works better when you have economies of scale, and when you’re partnering with a distributor’s 4,000 other customers, that’s when you can really help family farms make their living.”

A measured method

Eskenazi Health

For other operators looking to boost local sourcing, partnering with a small, local group purchasing organization like Eskenazi did can “eliminate the hoops of vetting farms and handling logistics like insurance—the kinds of things a lot of operations hold up as barriers,” Grant says. This approach helped Eskenazi realize its massive growth in local procurement over three years. They tackled small changes, such as switching to ketchup made from local Red Gold tomatoes, alongside big transformations, such as swapping providers of major proteins like chicken that make up a significant percentage of total case weight.

Beyond farms, Eskenazi has also helped bring local companies such as nearby Brickhouse Coffee Co. into distribution. “We were able to get cups and sleeves and other details made up for institutional considerations, which now means Brickhouse is a turnkey solution for the next company that comes to them,” Grant says. “We see it as an investment. Now other companies can bring that as a case study to their leadership, and show that yes, local can be affordable.”

In fact, last year Eskenazi increased its foodservice volume by 10%—and was under budget for food spend.

“That might not be the case for every operation, and it’s true that you’ll pay more for this locally sourced beef patty than you will for a frozen puck,” Grant says. “But the product we’re making is not only 10 times better, but more nutritious—and that money goes back into the community. It’s a matter of putting your money where your mouth is, even if it means less for your bottom line.”

Being there

Eskenazi Health

That’s also the philosophy that fuels Eskenazi’s partnership with Meals on Wheels of Central Indiana. Eskenazi is the largest provider of meals for the program, preparing an average of 10,600 monthly. The program includes a partnership with Ryan’s Meals for Life, which serves community members with HIV.

“We serve these meals at cost, and we’re able to help feed people who really need it, not only in Indianapolis but all across central Indiana,” Thaman says. “It’s such an important part of how we extend our reach and nourish people outside of our four walls.”

Thaman knows some operators may find it difficult to run significant partnerships that net no revenue, but the effort, he says, is worth it. “When you say, knee-jerk, ‘That’s not something we can do,’ you compromise your position in the community,” Thaman says. “You can start small. And start with what’s doable for your operation. The key thing is to step out of the kitchen and into the community.”

Grant agrees, noting that on the procurement side, Eskenazi was able to make serious leaps in a few short years. “In the grand scheme, it wasn’t all that long ago that we were one of those hospitals with convenience foods, frying bacon from someplace out of state,” Grant says. “But when you, as a team, commit to the mission of the whole health of the community, and start with the easy wins to serve that mission, you’ll be surprised just how far that can take you.”

Meet the FSD: Tom Thaman

Eskenazi Health

Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Eskenazi Health

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A: We’ve made great progress in increasing local procurement, but we want to go even further and continue to promote Indiana commerce. We’re also looking at opportunities to add more storage space, as well as create a succession plan for my position. I’m not retiring tomorrow or anything, but because I’m at the back half of my career, I want to make sure we’re well set up for the future.

Q: What’s the key to your team’s success?

A: We promote and cultivate innovation. Not every idea might work, but at least we know that we tried. Our staff rises to the challenge, and that kind of energy just builds on itself. Plus, once you become known for this type of culture, you become an employer of choice—and then you can recruit even more fantastic people.

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