Lessons learned from going organic

When it comes to organic farming, St. Luke’s Hospital foodservice staff have found ways to streamline production and maximize utilization.

When St. Luke’s Hospital & Health Network’s foodservice department (operated by Sodexo) developed an on-site, 5-acre farm at their Bethlehem Township, Penn., campus in spring of 2014, they were looking to provide organic produce to patients and guests. What the department wasn’t necessarily expecting was a bumper crop of tomatoes, lettuce and other veggies.

“I think it was last year, we were really caught off guard with the labor factor,” says Paul Meola, executive chef for Sodexo. “How to get the processes to move the produce through in a way that avoids waste of product.”

Over the past year, Meola and Nancy Baker, general manager for Sodexo, have learned techniques to streamline production and reduce spoilage. Below they share the lessons they’ve implemented during their second growing season.

Staff up on delivery days

Last summer, the farm grew 12 crops that amounted to about 44,000 pounds of produce, which was tended and harvested by members of Rodale Institute, a non-profit organic farm that co-developed St. Luke’s project. In the first growing season, it was a challenge for staff to transition from prepping precut vegetables to processing fresh produce without diverting labor away from daily meal prep. “It does create a lot of need for planning and additional labor on our end of the kitchen,” Meola says.

To help balance daily meal prep with processing produce on delivery days, Meola and Baker schedule additional staff members to focus solely on processing. They are given a checklist of tasks, which can include blanching greens for patient meals or dicing and refrigerating beets to stock the salad bar. “We see what our needs are and we hope that they could accomplish that in the four or five hours that they are here,” says Baker.

Embrace variety

The farm produced a copious crop of tomatoes last season, which staff spent hours roasting, stewing and transforming into sauces or salsas. “We had tomatoes all over the place for a while,” Meola says. To help hedge overly abundant crops that might not be fully utilized, Baker says that they’ve expanded to growing 30 crops, which increases the variety available for meals but also keep the delivery amounts manageable for staff to prepare.

This year, Meola is also using projected farmer’s lists to determine how much produce could be available a week ahead so that he can better coordinate orders from his other suppliers.

Send extra produce home with the patients

This summer, the department has found a unique way to distribute excess produce by creating gift baskets for maternity ward patients at the health network’s Bethlehem, Pa., location. On Fridays, eight to 10 new mothers receive a basket of prewashed, organic vegetables. “The nice thing is that the Bethlehem is receiving the produce anyway,” says Kira Bub, a marketing consultant at St. Luke’s Hospital and Health Network. “We able to clean and prepare it so that new moms can take it home and it’s ready to go.”

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