Body & Soul
Wellness, Inside and Out
(page 5 of 5)
TASTY HOSPITAL FOOD DEFIES TRADITION
By Dana Chivvis
Photograph Paulette Phlipot
Becky McCarver was in the cafeteria at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center south of Ketchum when the irony of the hospital meal struck home once again. The man next to her commented:
“I can eat my chicken fried steak, have my heart attack right here, and I’m already in the hospital.”
McCarver, a St. Luke’s clinical dietician, was no stranger to the paradox of hospital cafeterias, with their notoriously unhealthy fare. As a graduate student, she worked at a hospital that housed a Burger King.
McCarver’s job is to promote patients’ health through nutrition, but the St. Luke’s food didn’t fit with that. “It just wasn’t feeling right that I’d educate my patients one way” and then feed them in an entirely different way, she said.
In 2008 McCarver proposed realigning the cafeteria with the sustainable foods movement, whose advocates believe food should be healthy, environmentally sound and good for society.
This was the first step on the path to the St. Luke’s Green Cuisine program, the hospital’s commitment to serving only nutritious, sustainable foods. By initiating sweeping changes over the past year, St. Luke’s has reinvented itself as one of the few hospitals in the nation at the forefront of the sustainable foods movement.
The culinary philosophy centers on these main principles: Food should be fresh and healthy; it should be produced without damaging the environment or destroying small businesses; and farmers, farm animals and farmland should be treated ethically. A sustainable kitchen considers all these factors when food is planned and prepared.
“It seemed kind of lofty, like could you really make that happen?” McCarver remembered. To make sure it did, the hospital hired John Turenne, the founder of Sustainable Food Systems, a consulting company devoted to helping industrial kitchens make the transition from conventional to sustainable food.
Turenne began his career working as an executive chef in Connecticut. In 2001, while running Yale University’s twelve dining halls for food contractor Aramark, part of his job was to reduce costs for the school and his employer. Often that meant purchasing food in bulk from fewer companies—food that was more processed and required less cooking.
But when sustainable food guru Alice Waters’ daughter enrolled at Yale, everything changed. Waters, who owns Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, convinced Yale’s president to make its food service sustainable. The responsibility was passed to Turenne. “What I came to realize,” Turenne said, “was all of these decisions that I’d been making in my career were focused on the wrong thing, on dollars and cents, profit and loss, not common sense.” In 2005 he founded his company, and four years later he was in the kitchen at St. Luke’s.
“They needed help,” he said. “They were buying ninety-five percent of their food from one source and the quality of that food was highly processed.”
Today, St. Luke’s has a Sustainable Foods Policy that provides the framework for the kitchen. It’s banished trans-fats, fried foods and has limits on artificial sweeteners. It turns to the local market first for fresh ingredients and cooks everything from scratch. The menus are seasonal, and the meals are nutritious.
But the hospital didn’t get there right away. Turenne began by contacting local food growers and suppliers. One of the first suggestions he made was for the hospital to stop buying coffee from a national supplier and get it from Hailey Coffee Company instead.
JoDee Alverson, who oversees nutritional services at St. Luke’s, remembers being skeptical that the hospital could afford to buy from local businesses. “We just assumed, well, if they’re that small, it’s going to be expensive,” she said.
This was one of the misconceptions Turenne helped dispel. Not all local foods cost more, some even cost less. By saving money on some products and buying less quantity, the hospital can spend more on higher quality foods, like fresh chicken and fish. St. Luke’s spends the same amount on Green Cuisine that it did on its old food service.
Carrie Morgridge, owner of Hailey Coffee Company, quoted the hospital a lower price than it had been paying before. As an additional bonus, Morgridge buys almost entirely fair trade and organic coffees. “We try to support the farmers and try to give as much money back to them as possible,” she said.
Socially conscious business practices like hers are central to the sustainable foods movement. So are environmentally friendly practices.
Part of the benefit of buying local food is that there is less travel involved, reducing carbon emissions. St. Luke’s buys some of its food from Idaho’s Bounty, a co-op that connects the local market to growers in southern Idaho. The hospital also inspects every farm it works with to ensure the farm doesn’t use chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetic engineering, as do many industrial farms.
While the benefits of Green Cuisine echo far beyond the hospital walls, there are still those who would prefer things the way they were. Some St. Luke’s employees miss their chicken fried steak and soda and want to be able to choose what they put in their bodies.
McCarver admits they’ve had to make compromises. Cans of soda are still sold in the cafeteria, for example, but the soda fountain was removed. Diet Coke from a fountain contains saccharine, whereas from a can, it does not.
What is more surprising is the reaction gleaned from other hospitals.
“They have openly laughed and criticized our efforts,” Alverson said. Many hospitals simply give people what they want. But by doing this, she said, “we’re creating our own business by giving them heart attacks and diabetes.”
St. Luke’s operates nine hospitals in Idaho, but the Wood River Valley branch is the only one that’s signed onto a healthy foods protocol, called the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge. The pledge has been signed by 271 health care facilities in the United States and Canada, but only two are in Idaho: St. Luke’s Wood River and Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene.
But change rarely happens overnight. One of Turenne’s main messages is that organizations don’t have to take giant leaps. The road to sustainability can be long, and getting there can take time.
“There are some things that we’re doing really well and continuing to perfect,” McCarver said. “There is always room for growth.”