On a recent rainy afternoon, a jauntily-painted van from North Branch Farm in Monroe pulled up to a back door of Waldo County General Hospital and Tyler Yentes, the farmer driving, hopped out to unload two big bags of beets and rutabagas.
Less than five minutes later, he drove away, and a chef wheeled the vegetables over to the industrial-sized kitchen to clean and prepare them for cooking. The transaction was quick and ordinary — but in some ways, it was also transformational.
Hospital food in America long has had an unsavory reputation. Meals served to patients or to staff and visitors in hospital cafeterias often have been high in sugar, fat and wiggly Jell-O but low in fresh fruits, vegetables and nutrition. That’s changing, though. In some Maine hospitals the local food movement and the hunger for fresh and delicious fare is beginning to eat away at the stereotype of institutional food.
At Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, local farmers and other food producers provide between 15 and 20 percent of the food that is served at the hospital. Local vegetables and other foods are fresher, taste better and are good for the health of the patients, staff and even the greater community, according to Sheila Costello, the hospital’s nutrition services manager.
“Hospitals should be role models. We started seeking out farmers and training our cooks to use local foods,” she said. “We’re trying to model good eating. We’re walking the walk, and we’re trying to make it taste good. Consumers want it. They want good food … and I feel like it connects the community. It’s nice that the farms are so close by, and a lot of people know the farmers.”
Waldo County General Hospital, which serves about 225 staff members, patients and visitors a day, is not alone in its efforts to turn negative perceptions of institutional food upside down. About four years ago, officials at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport launched into a concerted effort to tap into the bounty of local produce, meats and fish all around them. Now, the hospital spends about 15 percent of its food budget on locally-sourced offerings, which equals roughly $75,000. That’s not chump change, and includes a commercial-sized community supported agriculture share from Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren.
“Every week, they bring me $250 of what they’re picking,” Jeff Space, the food service director, said. “They pick it that morning. They take pride in their stuff. They only bring me the top-notch produce, and the quality is so much better. Whatever comes in, we’ll make something special, or we’ll just incorporate it.”
The hospital, which feeds about 50 patients a day and serves an additional 100 people for lunch in the cafeteria, also serves seafood delivered by Port Clyde Fresh Catch in Port Clyde, beef from Goose River Farm in Swanville, coffee roasted by Rock City Coffee in Rockland, breads from Borealis Breads in Waldoboro and more. One example of a popular, locally-sourced meal was served last Friday, when the hospital’s chef prepared just-caught monkfish with capers, lemons and a drizzle of butter.
“People notice,” Space said of the new offerings.
For Waldo County General Hospital and Pen Bay Medical Center, both of which belong to the MaineHealth integrated health care system, a lot of the changes were initiated because of the Hospital Healthier Food Initiative. The national program was run by the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America and aimed to have hospitals cook up healthier options in their kitchens and cafeterias.
Beginning in 2012, MaineHealth hospitals teamed up with the Partnership to commit to deliver healthier options for patients, guests and employees. They received grant funding to help meet goals that included offering a daily wellness meal, having 60 percent of all entrees and side dishes in the cafeteria meet nutrition standards, and making sure that fruits and vegetables account for at least 10 percent of total food purchased by the hospital.
“There was a lot of accountability and fact-checking and deadline dates,” Space said. “The hospital got healthier stuff. Soda has been removed from the cafeteria, and we have more fruits and vegetables. It was a three-year process, and the changes were gradual, so it wasn’t shocking to customers.”
The feedback they’ve received from customers, especially regarding the local fare, has been positive. That makes sense, Costello said, adding that offerings like the ruby-red beets that are grown at North Branch Farm will be roasted and then added to the cafeteria’s salad bar, where they are a customer favorite.
“When I first started here, we didn’t do a whole lot of food,” she said. “But people are really looking for that stuff now.”
Jim Graham, the production manager with food and nutrition at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, agreed.
“Customers are getting more interested in what they’re eating, where it came from, and, if it’s fish, if it’s responsibly harvested,” he said. “In today’s world, people are much more educated and interested in what they’re eating. If we can put on our salad bar that these beets and carrots were locally sourced, we will absolutely do that.”
At EMMC, kitchen staff serve sometimes as many as 2,000 meals a day. About 90 percent of the food that’s prepared there comes from one big vendor, Performance Food Group. Local farmers and other suppliers make up part of the remaining 10 percent of food, which includes granola from Hiram’s Grandy Oats, smoked seafood from Belfast’s Ducktrap River of Maine, ice cream from Sanford’s Shain’s of Maine, tomatoes from Madison’s Backyard Farms and more. The hospital also purchases locally-caught lobster for lobster rolls that are on the patient menu every Monday.
“The patients really love those lobster rolls,” Graham said. “Out of the locally sourced items, that would be one that’s really popular. We get a lot of wows out of that.”
He said that the hospital wants to increase the number of locally-sourced items that it puts on the menu.
“One of the barriers is, can the local producer keep up with the demand? The answer is usually, but not always,” he said. “It’s absolutely an area that’s evolving all the time. Whatever the percentage [of local food we serve] now is, in a year, we expect it to double.”
Serving more locally-sourced foods isn’t just a question of finding reliable suppliers, hospital staff said. It also requires kitchen staff to be more flexible with ingredients and often willing to do more kitchen prep work. Being handed a bag of whole rutabagas or beets is a far cry from opening a flat of cans or a bag of frozen, prepared vegetables.
“When it comes to you fresh, we peel it, dice it and cook it,” Costello said. “It’s extra work, and you have to be more creative.”
But staff like Robert Coombs, the kitchen supervisor at Waldo County General Hospital, said that he doesn’t mind.
“I love it,” he said of having local produce and other foods. “The food always looks great. I have a delivery four times a week from a multitude of different purveyors and different farms. It makes a nice alternative, and we sell tons and tons of it. People come down special, just for that.”