Upgrading Tired Hospital Food

  • Two gourmet chefs managing the kitchen at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth are adding organic vegetables to the menu. (Photo by Stephanie Hemphill)

Some hospitals are trying to heal the food that they serve. The GLRC’s Stephanie Hemphill takes us to one hospital that’s making efforts to spice up their menu:


Some hospitals are trying to heal the food that they serve. The GLRC’s
Stephanie Hemphill takes us to one hospital that making efforts to spice
up their menu:

(Sound of elevator)

St. Luke’s is the smaller of Duluth’s two hospitals. Their motto could be
“we try harder.” Several years ago, the hospital put two chefs in charge
of the housekeeping, laundry, and food.

In the kitchen, there’s the usual industrial stoves and dishwashers, and a
long assembly line where workers fill the trays for patients, based on
what they’ve ordered.

“The patient fills out the menu, I’ll have this entrĂ©e and that salad and this
beverage; then as the tray moves down the conveyor belt, they look at the
menu and put on the appropriate products.”

Mark Branovan was a gourmet chef at restaurants in California’s wine
country. In that part of the world, they take their fresh fruits and
vegetables very seriously.

“We did very little of our produce buying from the big distributors; we
had local guys that would grow lettuce for us, and herbs for us, and tomatoes…
anything we wanted. So that just kind of rolled over for us into, if
we can do it for a restaurant, why can’t we do it for a hospital?”

It’s harder to do in this part of the country, where you can grow lettuce
for about half the year and you’re lucky to get a tomato at all. But
Branovan and his colleague, LeeAnn Tomczyk, decided not to let that
stop them.

Tomczyk was a chef in a trendy restaurant in Wisconsin before she took
the job at the hospital. She says when she first came here, she was
appalled at some of the things on the menu.

“YOu know the patient was able to pick a jell-o salad and a piece of cake.
Well, to me jell-o is a dessert but to them it was their salad and that
was their vegetable, and that wasn’t right.”

Tomczyk and Branovan started to add more fruits and vegetables,
including organic items, to the menu, but they learned to pick their

“When I tried to change some of the casserole dishes, and some of the
traditional northern Minnesota fare, I was met with some serious
resistance from our customers and our patients who said, ‘Yeah, we have
tater tot hot dish on our menu because we like it.'”

One of the first items to change was the milk. Now the hospital serves
hormone-free milk to patients in the rooms and workers in the cafeteria.
Tomczyk says she’s convinced hormone-free milk and organic food are
healthier. She says an organization devoted to helping people heal, like a
hospital, needs to think about healing in broad terms, even globally. She
says buying local food avoids long-distance transportation, with its heavy
reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

“And the introduction of pesticides and herbicides, and that getting into
our water systems, it’s that whole cycle, and we’re using more and more
these days, and I think it’s just got out of hand.”

The hospital is also committed to reducing waste. It freezes unused
portions and gives them to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. It sends
its food waste to the city compost pile.

St. Luke’s is a member of a hospital buying group that negotiates prices
with big producers like Pillsbury. Each hospital is supposed to buy a
certain percentage of its food through the buying group. When Branovan
and Tomczyk asked the distributor for hormone-free milk, the distributor
didn’t carry it.

“We had to actually get a waiver that says they will allow us to buy off-

Branovan got a similar waiver to buy organic fresh fruit, and greens for
the cafeteria salad bar. He hopes to add more organic and locally-grown

Branovan says St. Luke’s is the first hospital in the region to ask the
buying group to supply hormone-free milk and organic vegetables, but
hospitals and schools on the west coast and east coast are doing it on a larger

James Pond is editor of Food Service Director, a trade magazine.
He says the movement will grow.

“The pricing advantages will in some ways level out, where if it becomes
important enough to the clientele, the food service operators will respond
by providing products in this manner.”

Some hospitals organize a farmer’s market to serve their workers, as a
way to introduce them to organic and local foods. Then they add those
foods to the cafeteria and patient meals. At St. Luke’s, they feature
organic food at company parties.

For the GLRC, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

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