Iowa retirement communities join the fresh food movement

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The demand for food that’s fresh and local just keeps growing.

That’s just as true in retirement communities as anywhere else.

“We used to serve what you would consider ‘industrial food’ — thaw it out, cook it, serve it,” says Laurie Fish, dietary services manager at the Hiawatha Care Center, a 95-bed skilled nursing facility in Hiawatha. “We’re trying to do more from-scratch cooking. I think that’s the trend nowadays.”

At Hiawatha Care Center, that means a lot of made-from-scratch low-sodium soups and homemade baked goods, as well as fresh produce that comes from either their regular food distributor or the local farmers markets.

“During the summer months, our staff goes to the Noelridge and Hiawatha farmers markets, and the Farmer’s Daughter’s Market — it’s just a few blocks away from us. We have gotten sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, watermelons, cantaloupes and more,” Fish says. “There’s just nothing like those fresh vegetables; we try to give our place a homelike environment, and we think good, fresh food is part of that experience.”

Preparing the produce can become a center-wide event, she adds, as residents gather for corn-shucking or green-bean-snapping parties in the activity room.

Prairie Hills at Cedar Rapids, an assisted living facility with 48 residents, goes a step further, growing its own tomatoes, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, and other vegetables in a 60-square-foot rooftop garden. About a dozen residents begin planting seeds in pots in March, transfer them to the garden once the weather warms up, and care for them through harvest.

“When they harvest the tomatoes, they slice them up and share them. It turns into quite the activity,” says Katy Smith, community relations director for Prairie Hills. “Other tomatoes are frozen and used to make tomato sauce and chili.”

Prairie Hills’ chef “incorporates mainly all from-scratch cooking,” says Smith. That includes things like mashed potatoes made with potatoes (not reconstituted from boxed powder), freshly-mixed coating for battered fish, and one-of-a-kind peanut butter and jelly cupcakes.

Favorite entrees, she adds, include stuffed green peppers, roast beef with sweet potatoes, and homemade soups, like a recent addition to the menu, a “not-too-spicy” taco soup.

“Nutrition is so important to the well-being of our seniors,” Smith says. “When you incorporate fresh produce and a balanced diet, it makes a world of difference in how you feel. We see that our residents have more energy — true energy — when they eat well.”

Some retirement communities, like Cottage Grove Place in southeast Cedar Rapids, are also seeing a demand not just for more fresh food, but for “more exotic” dishes.

“The residents we’re getting in now want to be wowed a little bit more,” says Josh Hollingshead, the facility’s food and beverage director.

Think dishes like Mussels au Vin Blanc (mussels in steamed white wine), fish tacos with corn-and-black-bean salsa, roasted pepper bisque soup and Brussels sprouts with bacon.

As a continuing care retirement community, Cottage Grove Place offers different menus for its different levels of care. The “exotic” dishes are offered alongside classic options like steak and casseroles in the independent care community’s dining room; the health center (assisted living and nursing care) focuses on “heartwarming foods” like stews and braises.

In preparing both types of meals, though, “it’s always important to do as many things homemade as we possibly can,” Hollingshead says. “We get fresh Iowa product through our major wholesaler. It costs a little bit more, but you get better flavor, better product. You can really see the residents brighten up when they take a bite of that fresh Iowa tomato.”


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