VERNON - Like airline fare, hospital food has a certain stereotype associated with it, but in Vernon and across the Interior, those perceptions are changing one home-cooked meal at a time.
The meatloaf, for example, is just like mom used to make it, says Interior Health Authority food production manager Ron Eichberger of his favourite dish on the menu.
“I believe there is a percentage of the population that does not expect much at all,” Eichberger says. “They are pleasantly surprised with what they are receiving.”
The kitchen in the basement of Vernon Jubilee Hospital sends fragrances of cooked onions and stewed meat into the hallways on a Friday morning as staff busily prepare enough food to feed a small town. Every meal served in the hospital is made in the hospital, by hand, with the freshest and most nutritional ingredients possible, food service supervisor Randy Dun says.
“There are stereotypes out there for sure, but I think we’ve certainly tried to do a lot of work in changing the culture of it,” Dun says. “What we’re doing is making good, healthy, nutritious food from scratch with all natural ingredients. We’re using fresh garlic, fresh ginger and seasonings. The food is not just coming out of a transport truck.”
Dun and Eichberger are both former high-end restaurant cooks who transitioned into the health care sector. The shift has meant cooking with less butter and heavy cream, and focussing more on cutting out sodium and trans fat, but Dun says it’s still possible to get creative with recipes and cook delicious food.
The kitchen produces about 30 different recipes, but more are being tested and introduced all the time, Dun says. The lengthy process involves extensive tweaking and testing before a recipe is deemed a success. The food has to meet a nutritional standard, be manageable to make on a massive scale, and above all be tasty, while also familiar enough to satisfy a range of taste buds.
“There’s a couple recipes we’ve been working on for a good five to six months,” Dun says. “We want to make sure it’s good before it goes out.”
The kitchen at Vernon Jubilee Hospital is an especially busy place because it also serves as the food production centre for all of the Interior Health Authority’s facilities, which stretch from Kamloops to the Kootenays. While breakfasts, sandwiches, and most side dishes are prepared on site at the health authority’s numerous care facilities, main entrees like lasagnas, beef stews and the extremely popular mac and cheese are all made at Vernon Jubilee, frozen in the kitchen’s state of the art freezers — which retain quality and nutrition — and shipped out. In all, the health authority provides about five million meals each year across its 55 facilities.
At that volume, buying local is no simple task, but the health authority is doing what it can to source farm fresh ingredients. Whether it’s carrots from Armstrong, or apples from Kelowna, there’s a good chance the food on your hospital plate was grown in the region. The health authority estimates about 25 per cent of its produce is local, and about 30 per cent including bread and dairy products.
Not only does a healthy, appetizing meal greatly improve the experience of a hospital visit, it’s also an essential part of recovery.
“When people are in a state of healing, being served a meal they enjoy and consume really falls into the equation of care,” Eichberger says.
Little details like toasting bread right outside a patient’s room so they can smell it crisping up are things the hospital has implemented to enhance the hospital dining experience, Dun says.
“It gets the appetite flowing,” Dun says. “In hospitals, sometimes there’s not a lot to look forward to so if they can look forward to a meal that they have some relation to, something familiar like macaroni and cheese or meatloaf, it’s not only the physical act of eating, but a psychological affect as well.”
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