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San Diego Hospitals Working To Make Their Food Tasty

When you think of hospitals, tasty food doesn’t usually come to mind, but hospitals throughout San Diego County are trying to change that reputation.


When you think of hospitals, tasty food doesn’t usually come to mind, but hospitals throughout San Diego County are trying to change that reputation.

When you think of hospitals, tasty food doesn’t usually come to mind — whether it's dining choices in the cafeteria or for patients — but hospitals throughout San Diego County are trying to change that reputation.

Take San Diego's Sharp Memorial Hospital, where chefs and cooks are working to dish out healthy and delicious food.

You won’t find fried chicken or a glazed donut in the hospital's cafeteria. Instead, you’ll find displays of fresh fruit and a big salad bar.

And the entrees? How about pot roast with seasoned vegetables, or citrus and herb crusted salmon?

“I hire executive chefs, just like restaurants and hotels," said Lauren Blacker, Sharp's district manager. "Why should our food not be amazing because we’re a hospital?”

Blacker, a registered dietician, has helped transform the menus at Sharp through a partnership with Sodexo, a food service company.

It’s been a five-year journey.

Early on, Sharp decided to toss out the salt and sugar and bypass processed food. Now, it’s all about using fresh herbs and spices. Nearly 30 percent of the hospital's produce is from local growers.

Photo caption:

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

A chef at Sharp Memorial Hospital prepares a salad to be served in the hospital's cafeteria in January 2015.

Hospital Cuisine No Longer An Oxymoron

Blacker said she wants to motivate and inspire people to make healthy choices.

“And in a burger, maybe the burger that we’re encouraging you to enjoy is local, antibiotic-free, sustainable," she said. "And we’re saying, you know, today, instead of getting French fries with that, why don’t you get baked Lays (chips) or a side of vegetables?”

Sharp’s efforts are part of a national campaign to improve the health and sustainability of the health care sector, called the Healthier Hospitals Initiative.

The initiative encourages hospitals to set an example by serving healthy food and drinks. That includes reducing the amount of meat and sugary beverages, and increasing the percentage of locally grown food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says healthier diets might prevent $71 billion in medical costs each year.

A USDA report also says American diets are associated with a number of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and obesity.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Roland Lizarondo

Fresh salads made from locally grown produce are on the menu at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, January 2015.

Sharp Executive Chef Justin Searle said the hospital is trying to do what it can to make healthy, tasty food, including using fresh vegetables from its own organic garden.

While he gave a tour of the garden, Searle said, “So over here we have some Japanese eggplant growing. As you can see, it’s going to start out with the buds. So when it gets a little larger, we’ll go ahead and harvest them and use them in the cafeteria."

Searle said the days of hospitals serving TV dinners and tapioca pudding are over.

“We really don’t feel that hospital food should be bland and tasteless," he said. "Food is medicine, and that’s what we’re trying to teach people. So it needs to taste good, it needs to be appealing and appetizing, and it’s got to be satisfying.”

Palomar Medical Center in Escondido is also taking part in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative.

Like Sharp, Palomar buys a lot of its food from local growers. And it bakes or grills all of its entrees.

Meat No Longer The Centerpiece

Jim Metzger, Palomar's director of hospitality, said the hospital also is trying to reduce the amount of meat served to patients.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Roland Lizarondo

Grilled salmon with brown rice and fresh green beans is one of dozens of entrees served anytime at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, January 2015.

“And we know that there are other ways that we can round out that plate, with delicious wild rice, beautiful whole wheat pastas," Metzger said.

Palomar wants its food service to contribute to the hospital’s hotel-like ambiance. Patients can choose from nearly three-dozen entrees. All meals are cooked to order and served anytime during the day.

With hospitals today competing for patients, Metzger said patients expect more than a bland meal and a non-descript room.

“They want a different experience," he said. "And I think that just as in the same manner that we travel differently and look for different hotels than our parents opted for, that quest is going to be the same in medical care. So we have to continue to grow and challenge ourself.”

A Meal Fit For A Date

So the next time you’re in a local hospital, chances are you’ll get a healthy, nutritious meal that actually tastes good.

Sharp Vice President Donna Serpico-Thompson said the cafeteria food is so good you could even bring a date.

“Sure! Bring a date. You can’t have wine, but you can bring a date," she said.


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