Hospital Cafeterias: Heal Thyselves

Local medical centers lead the way in offering healthful fare in their food services

December 22, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Upstairs at Franklin Square Hospital Center, they're treating patients with diabetes and high blood pressure.

Downstairs in the cafeteria, onion rings and french fries glisten under the orange glow of a heat lamp.

Upstairs at Johns Hopkins Hospital, they're treating patients for heart disease.

Downstairs the patients - and the doctors who treat them - can order bacon cheeseburgers packing 822 calories and 42 grams of fat.

Ironic?

"It's incredible what people seemingly with a mind for health and medicine will accept as normal hospital fare," says Susan Levin, a dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "These restaurants are full of high-fat, high-cholesterol, very low-fiber foods that lead to the No. 1 killers in this country and are a big part of the reason there are so many hospital beds to begin with."

But both of these hospitals are also among dozens of health care institutions in the country taking steps to fix that contradiction. They're realizing that hospital food doesn't have to be like airplane food (when there was airline food), a culinary joke eaten only by those with no other choice.

In fact, Franklin Square and the other Baltimore-area MedStar Health properties, Union Memorial and Harbor hospitals, have been testing a healthy-cafeteria program that's been so successful, it will soon roll out to other MedStar properties and possibly hundreds more hospitals around the country.

The system, developed by a chef accustomed to cooking for luxury spas, has hospital staff lunching on items like Black Bean Sake Glazed Tofu, Spiced Carrot Quinoa and Butternut Squash Faro Risotto - all low-fat and under 450 calories.

"There's a stigma that customers don't want healthy food," says chef Cary Neff, who developed the Flavors 450 menu around the tenets of seasonal, healthful ingredients, balanced portions and appealing flavors. "I'm putting the same energy that used to go into making food fast into making food healthy and tasty."

Three years ago, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine surveyed hospitals and found that less then one-third had a salad bar or regularly offered low-fat, cholesterol-free food. And at all of them - as at MedStar hospitals - fatty fried chicken, pizza and enchiladas were among the top-selling dishes.

Last week at Franklin Square, as noon approached, hospital workers began filing into the cafeteria, wandering past the deli station, the salad bar, the grill, looking for something to eat.

Neff, visiting for the day, worked the Flavors 450 station, ladling broth into a rice-filled wok where it erupted in a burst of soy-scented steam, the beginning of his Green Bamboo Rice with Asian Style Swiss Chard and Mushrooms.

He vigorously stirred roasted red beets into pearls of Israeli couscous, creating a purplish pasta that customers eyed with more than a little suspicion.

"I've never had beets before," said Caryn Koterwas, who works in the hospital's public relations department, as she tentatively tasted a sample cup of Neff's dish. She pronounced it "OK" but ordered the bamboo rice.

Nurse Karen Seibert was among the first in line. She has headed straight for Flavors 450 since the pilot program made its debut in September.

"It's sooooooo good," she said. "I told everyone upstairs that it's as good as you get at a restaurant."

Jessica Osterman, an internal medicine resident waiting in line for an order of bamboo rice, said she loves "the exact perfect portions." "I was here as a med student and they didn't have anything like this - it's a nice change of pace."

MedStar forced the creation of Flavors 450 by pushing its cafeteria supplier, Morrison Healthcare Foodservice, for healthier options. Morrison hired Neff to develop a menu and, based on its reception in Baltimore, is offering it to its other clients - 450 hospitals and 400 senior living centers nationwide.

In the next year, the company plans to make the entrees available to patients.

Morrison spokesman Jim DeVos jokes that nutritious hospital fare is nothing new - just the fact that people want to eat it: "We've been creating really healthful meals for decades; unfortunately it's called 'hospital food.' "

But now, with obesity reaching epidemic proportions, to say nothing of heart disease and diabetes, he says it's imperative for health care organizations to set a better example, to show people that food that's good for you can taste good, too.

And because the station's food is inherently healthful, people don't have to worry when they order from it.

"I can walk up to this station and I don't have to think about it," DeVos says. "I don't have to count calories, I can walk up and say, 'Give me that.' "

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