CEDAR RAPIDS — Hospital food has a bad reputation.
“They think instant mashed potatoes or lime Jello,” said Andy Deutmeyer, food service manager and head chef at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids.
But Deutmeyer — former head chef of Blend, a downtown Cedar Rapids restaurant that closed because of the 2008 flood — is working hard to change that perception.
One way he’s doing that is by increasing the amount of fresh, local produce the hospital uses in the meals it serves its patients, their families and staff.
Mercy works with eight to nine suppliers, Deutmeyer said, to purchase everything from greens — including kale, spinach and lettuce — to local tomatoes, squash and onions as well as meats and dairy. It’s a way to keep dollars local and provide healthful, better-tasting food that’s not frozen or stored in a can, he said.
“This really started as an experiment,” Deutmeyer said, explaining the hospital participated in a local community-supported agriculture (CSA)— in which individuals cover costs of the farming operation and the farmer’s salary and in return receive vegetables throughout the growing season.
But that produced vegetables on a very low-volume scale, he said, and hospital employees had to go out to the farms to pick up the produce.
So Deutmeyer and Pam Oldham, director of Mercy’s food and nutrition department, worked to expand the operation, establishing a network of farmers that the hospital has continued to grow every year. Mercy purchased and used more than 17,800 pounds of local food in 2011, and by 2015 the hospital had bought 46,500 pounds of local food, according to hospital data.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s the right thing to do for the community, and it also supports the mission of Mercy,” Oldman said. “We can keep dollars local and the produce tastes better. As long as we’re able to do it, we’ll do it.”
The produce is used in everything from the salad bar and deli counter to casseroles and soups. And the partnerships have even allowed some producers to expand their operations, Oldman said, adding the hospital hopes to buy 55,000 pounds of fresh food in 2016.
Deutmeyer is always looking for new partnerships to fill gaps or add new vegetables to the menu.
In 2015, for example, the hospital started working with Iowa Choice Harvest, a Marshalltown-based company that works with Iowa farmers to freeze and package produce during peak growing season. The company, started in 2013, supplies the hospital with carrots, apples and sweet corn, especially during the winter when there aren’t as many options.
Oldman said the effort is appreciated by staff and patients — Mercy is one of 13 hospitals nationwide to get a Press Ganey patient satisfaction score above 90 percent for its food and nutrition services department for six years in a row.
Kitchen staff frequently receive compliments and positive feedback, she said, and she even has friends who work outside the hospital who come by for lunch when a certain dish is being served. The local produce certainly plays a key role, she said, explaining that when fresh tomatoes are delivered during the summer, the demand for tomatoes goes up by 100 pounds a week.
“Ten years ago, what we do at Mercy would have been nearly impossible,” Deutmeyer said. “There were not as many growers and they weren’t growing on as large of scale.”
But more people have become conscientious as to where their food is coming from and who is growing it, Deutmeyer said. He anticipates the hospital will only continue to expand its local food options.
“There’s so much more out there that we can get our hands on,” he said.