Hospital food alert: Why Methodist is upgrading its massive kitchen

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Let’s talk about hospital food. As Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Then again, remember what Batman told Zeta: “Ugh. Nothing worse than hospital food.”

Love it or hate it, hospital food is a big operation, dishing out meals and snacks in the U.S. for millions of patients, visitors and staff workers.

Around these parts, the leader is Indiana University Health’s Methodist Hospital, a massive operation that serves 5,000 meals a day. The hospital recently completed an ambitious, $573,000 modernization aimed at improving quality and more customization of meals.

IU Health says the upgrade is a response to the growing demand by patients, visitors and staff for meals tailored to special dietary needs.

Improving hospital food would seem to be something most people would be support. Before we get to what’s going on at Methodist, let’s see what’s up in the wider world of hospital food.

First, to get your palate ready, check out this BBC story. It’s basically a collection of photos submitted by readers of actual hospital meals, several of which are overcooked, over-breaded, cheap cuts of meat. ("It looks like it has eczema. It looks like it's cold. I wouldn't touch it," one TV chef tells the BBC.)

Then consider that hospitals in the U.S. and other western nations have come under fire for serving too much fast food, including cheeseburgers, breaded chicken sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, soda, and fatty desserts.

According to a report earlier this year by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, there are at least 20 hospitals in the U.S. that have a Chick-fil-A on their premises, 18 with a McDonald’s and five with a Wendy’s.

By the same token, that same organization recently praised 24 U.S. hospitals for offering fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cholesterol-free entrees and soy milk. The only hospital in Indiana to be singled out for praise was Eskenazi Hospital, which tied for sixth place with a food score of 76 percent.

Even the federal government has opinions on the matter. The Centers for Disease Control warns that hospitals that dish out foods full of sodium “can lead to increased salt consumption in already sick and immune-compromised populations as well as their families, hospital staff, and the public.”

Now back to Methodist. The hospital says it wants to control sodium content and saturated fats in its meals. It recently spent four months renovating its kitchen with two combination steam-convection ovens, two state-of-the-art blast chillers that refrigerate food and a 100-gallon computerized cooking kettle.

All that new equipment will give hospital chefs the ability to prepare more foods from scratch, including soups and rotisserie chicken and other meats, IU Health said in a fact sheet.

“By cooking more foods from scratch, as opposed to purchasing pre-cooked foods, Methodist can better control sodium content, saturated fats and other additives and ingredients that are critical in special diets,” the organization said.

It added that more than half the meals that the hospital serves patients are modified for special dietary needs.

In addition to better food, the makeover will reduce Methodist’ energy and water bills by more than $40,000 a year. The hospital’s old chiller relied on tumbling ice to chill food, while the old cook kettle wasn’t computer-run and was too large to efficiently prepare smaller bags of food, according to Jane Ewing, IU Health’s executive director of nutrition services.

If the makeover proves successful, Methodist just might have enough oomph to lead a statewide example. Methodist, with 625 beds, is the largest hospital in Indiana. Besides its main kitchen, Methodist operates a catering kitchen and a kitchen serving its cafeteria.

Already, some other hospitals here are moving in a similar direction. Earlier this month, Eskenazi reported a 37 percent decrease in the amount of sodium ingested by visitors and staff at its retail food outlets and vending after a three-year effort. How did it do it? Lots of ways, such as discouraging soda consumption and placing free water stations in retail areas; encouraging the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables; and putting out healthier snacks in smaller portions near the cash registers. The move was funded by a $250,000 to the Marion County Public Health Department from the Centers for Disease Control.

Bon appetit! And don’t pass the salt.

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