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.

Related Links

Bringing the Farm to the City

There’s a new kind of farmer being trained… city farmers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ben Calhoun has the story of someone who has dedicated his life to training them:


There’s a new kind of farmer being trained…city farmers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ben Calhoun has
the story of someone who has dedicated his life to training them.

Will Allen has been farming all his life. But ten years ago, he decided he wanted to do
something different. So he started ‘Growing Power.’

You’ll find Growing Power’s Farm on a busy street on the northside of Milwaukee. It’s in
the middle of a row of houses and for a farm its pretty small.

Most days you’ll also find Will Allen there. Today, Allen’s giving a tour of the place. He
leads the group through Growing Power’s four green houses. There are rows of herbs,
eggplants, compost heaps, and boxes filled with worms.

“And where do you set the worms?”

“The worms, we started out with 35 pounds of worms some five years ago. Now we
have millions of worms.”

“I see.”

There’s a lot to see here.

Allen pulls together a lot of pieces to make his organization work.

Growing Power has been finding people to start urban farms for more than ten years –
something Allen says is actually harder than most people think, because he says farming
is harder than most people think.

“And when I sit down with kids’ groups I tell ’em, I say, ‘ Look at my hands. If you guys
are gonna do this work, your hands are gonna look like mine, if you’re truly gonna do it.’
I’m not talking about going into a class and growing a bean in a cup. I say, ‘You’re
gonna get hot, you’re gonna get sweaty, you’re gonna get dirty, you’re going to get
frustrated sometimes.’ But I say when you grow something, it’s gonna take all that pain

Allen’s found a lot of people who want to do that type of work.

Farming projects launched by Growing Power are scattered across the Midwest.

About 80 miles southwest of Chicago is the kind of place that Allen builds – it’s called
‘Growing Home.’ Growing Home is a farming project started by Chicago’s Coalition for
the Homeless. The Coalition buses homeless people here to grow corn, beans, and

Here Milton Marks sweats as he pulls black-eyed pea plants out of the dirt. Marks used
to be an auto mechanic. And he came to the project through a city job program. Marks
says it took a while to get used to working here on a farm.

“You know, at first it put me in mind of that picture, ‘Children of the Corn.’ (laughs)
So uh, I was kinda careful when I went up in the corn field – you know what I’m saying?
Yeah, I was kinda careful. But it was interesting and I liked the concept.”

Marks isn’t working alone, and just a few bean rows over, Ron Carter is stomping a
pitchfork into the ground.

Ron became involved through a homeless shelter in Chicago. He says he’s found a new
niche for himself working here on the farm.

“I love it, I love this type of work. You know, but at first, not in my wildest dreams.
Thought that I would be interested in this type of work. It’s been an overwhelming
feeling. It’s been really, really overwhelming.”

Carter’s spent his whole life in Chicago. He says the people he knows in the city, they
just don’t farm.

But in Chicago’s Southside Woodlawn neighborhood there’s another project actually
bringing farming into the city. Right in the middle of the residential neighborhood is
what looks like a home garden – maybe 50 feet by 60 feet. It’s filled with vegetables.

Carol Hughes started this space. As we walk around the plot of plants, she describes
what she thinks is already making her project a success.

“There’s a certain serenity about being in this space. Can’t you feel it? You know, even
though you’re here and there are cars swishing by on either side of us, and other elements
of the community are out (laughs), it’s just, there’s a serenity here, there’s a quiet here,
there’s the greenery. And I love seeing that light, I love seeing things grow.”

Hughes says right now most of the people working on her project are kids. But she says
the farm is getting lots of interest from all parts of her community.

Will Allen says that’s the kind of excitement that makes a project a success. He also
says it’s something that keeps him going.

“I see it happen, every year, year after year. But to see somebody else’s face . . . ‘ I can’t
believe I grew these peppers, or tomatoes, or corn.’ You know, that’s a beautiful thing.
That’s another one of the things that keeps me doing this.”

Allen says Carol Hughes’ project will be four times bigger next year than it is this year.
He says they’ll work to purify the soil so they can use all their land. All together,
Growing Power will continue working with about 35 projects starting up throughout the
Midwest. And they say they expect five more to be up and running by next season.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ben Calhoun.