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At Central PA hospitals, food is in focus

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Nacole Klopp, senior sous chef at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, prepares patient meals and food for retail dining venues in the 500-bed facility.
Nacole Klopp, senior sous chef at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, prepares patient meals and food for retail dining venues in the 500-bed facility. - (Photo / )

Hospitals are trying to shed their reputation for bad food with meals that are not just healthy, but tasty as well.

Few if any patients look at a menu before picking a hospital, but food has a significant effect on the patient experience, said Katie Owens, president of the Healthcare Experience Foundation, a nonprofit in Florida.

“Food is one of the most basic physiological needs and presents an area for hospitals to excel,” said Owens, adding that the typical patient spends four-and-a-half days in the hospital. “That means they will be eating between 12 and 14 meals while hospitalized. For this reason alone, it’s important that institutions not view food as an afterthought.”

Owens believes that it’s also important to keep the lines of communication open in order to set expectations.

“I was working with an organization not too long ago and many patients were put on low-sodium diets. They weren’t told what to expect, which resulted in extreme dissatisfaction, so patient communication is also part of that. Hospitals should back that up by delivering food that has a strong appearance value,” said Owens.

Finding a specialist

Lancaster General Hospital/Penn Medicine relies on the services of Georgia-based Morrison Healthcare, a food and nutrition services company that serves more than 700 hospitals and health care systems across the United States. The company specializes in keeping up to date with the latest American Hospital Association guidelines, which include initiatives like decreasing the use of trans fats. Other measures include providing the hospital with antibiotic-free meat and working with local farmers to provide the hospital with fresh produce.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all process,” said Nick del Valle, LGH’s director of food and nutrition services. “The company works within our parameters for regional tastes and the 14 different diets we accommodate, which range from gluten free to low sodium and heart healthy, to name just a few.”

That range continues to grow. “Our dietetic intern will be working with our chef to develop kosher and soy-free menus as well,” said del Valle.

You know it’s not your grandmother’s hospital food when you learn that people are tuning in to social media to watch meal preparation.

“We did a Facebook Live session with the chef to demonstrate how we make the crab cakes, and that generated a lot of interest,” said del Valle. Among patients who deliver babies at Lancaster General Health’s Women’s & Babies Hospital, the crab cakes rank high as a favorite dish.

Gregg Altland, associate director of retail food services at Penn State Health, also works with Morrison Healthcare. He said one of the bigger challenges is accommodating a wide range of dietary and individual preferences.

“Morrison offers a core menu, along with limited-time offerings to keep the menu dynamic in the retail arena,” said Altland, who has witnessed plenty of changes in the industry over the years. “When I first started here 27 years ago, we had no chefs. Vegetables were frozen and cooked with a hunk of butter.”

Today Penn State employs a chef, and everything is fresh. The health system is currently working with a registered dietician on several new initiatives, like designing more plant-based meals and substituting fresh herbs and spices for salt.

Sterile processing technician Beverly Johnson surveys the deli case in Rotunda Café, the main cafeteria at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Open to visitors, employees and patients, the café’s offerings include a sushi bar.
Sterile processing technician Beverly Johnson surveys the deli case in Rotunda Café, the main cafeteria at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Open to visitors, employees and patients, the café’s offerings include a sushi bar. - ()

“We don’t shake herbs out of a jar. We’ve gotten away from the ‘hospital food mentality,’” Altland said.

Changing demographics are also taken into account to ensure that all tastes are accommodated. “We work very closely with the diversity counsel to cater to various cuisines since scores of different nationalities are represented here,” said Altland.

Nacole Klopp, who works at Penn State as a senior sous chef, said that dishes generally repeat every three weeks. Penn State also features a weekly “Wellness Wednesday,” where, Klopp said, “A chef cooks at an exhibition station and then we offer patients that same entrée.”

Last April, the center kicked off a composting initiative in conjunction with a community garden on campus where staff members cultivate fresh herbs for patients and several retail food outlets located on site. Long-term patients, with their doctor’s consent, can dine at any of seven retail locations, which include chains like Au Bon Pain and Starbucks as well as five additional hospital-run cafes that offer a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner choices.

Additional nutrition-focused community outreach by Penn State includes partnering with the Farmers Market in Hershey located across the street from the facility. “Our chef demonstrations bring awareness to the type of food that we serve,” Klopp said.

York-based WellSpan’s approach to food service has evolved over the years as well.

The company prides itself on employing culinary professionals who make everything from scratch.

“The old cliché of ‘hospital food’ has changed. All of our employees are culinarily trained,” said Tim Bentzel, WellSpan’s director of food and nutrition services. “Years ago, we promoted workers to cooks. Today we employ professional chefs.”

Bentzel said the health system has had no problem recruiting talented individuals who are attracted to the family-friendly hours. “A corporate executive chef provides oversight and we have sous chefs working at each hospital,” he added.

WellSpan also takes advantage of its agriculturally rich location to buy locally sourced products, like meat from nearby East Berlin, dairy products from Rutter’s Dairy in York and applesauce from Knouse Foods in Adams County.

“We try to keep food purchases as local as we can, so most of our products are (from) within a 50-mile radius,” said Bentzel.

Entrees have moved into the modern era as well, with favorites like grilled salmon and London broil taking the place of meatloaf and haddock, for instance.

Each hospital may take a slightly different approach, but they are all seeking to achieve the same goals. It’s important to recognize the hard-working employees that strive day and night to achieve high standards of excellence, said del Valle.

“We have great associates who believe in what they’re doing and why they’re here,” he continued. “We are all committed to working together as a team to meet patients’ needs and enhance their satisfaction as they continue on their journey towards wellness.”

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