Thursday, April 9, 2020


Duluth hospital goes organic

Larger view
Two gourmet chefs managing the kitchen at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth are adding organic vegetables to the menu. (MPR photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
Most people think one of the unpleasant things about hospitals is the food. That bland, boring mush that passes for a meal. The white bread, the processed meat, the jello -- could it possibly be good for you? In Duluth, two hospital food managers are trying to change all that. They're adding organic fresh fruits and vegetables to the menu. It's the beginning moves in what could change the hospital dining experience.

Duluth, Minn. — St. Luke's is the smaller of Duluth's two hospitals. Their motto could be, "We try harder." Several years ago, the hospital put two chefs in charge of the housekeeping, laundry, and food.

In the kitchen, there's the usual industrial stoves and dishwashers, and a long assembly line where workers fill the trays for patients, based on what they've ordered.

"The patient fills out the menu, indicating what entrée and salad and beverage they want," says Mark Branovan. "Then, as the tray moves down the conveyor belt, they look at the menu and put on the appropriate products." Branovan was a gourmet chef at restaurants in California's wine country. In that part of the world, they take their fresh fruits and vegetables very seriously.

"We did very little of our produce-buying from the big distributor," he says. "We had local guys that would grow lettuce for us, and herbs, and tomatoes, and anything we wanted. So that just kind of rolled over for us into, 'If we can do it for a restaurant, why can't we do it for a hospital?'"

It's harder to do in northern Minnesota, where you can grow lettuce for about half the year and you're lucky to get a tomato at all. But Branovan and his colleague, LeeAnn Tomczyk, decided not to let that stop them.

Tomczyk was a chef in Madison Wisconsin before she took the job at the hospital. She says when she first came here, she was appalled at some of the things on the menu.

"The patient was able to pick a jell-o salad and a piece of cake," she recalls. "Well, to me, jell-o is a dessert, but to them it was their salad and that was their vegetable, and that wasn't right."

Tomczyk and Branovan started to make some changes, but they learned to pick their battles.

"When I tried to change some of the casserole dishes, and some of the traditional northern Minnesota fare," he remembers. "I was met with some serious resistance from our customers and our patients who said, 'Yeah, we have tater tot hot dish on our menu because we like it!'"

But customer complaints weren't the biggest problem. St. Luke's is a member of a hospital buying group, that negotiates prices with big producers like Pillsbury. Each hospital is supposed to buy a certain percentage of its food through the buying group. When Branovan and Tomczyk asked the distributor for hormone-free milk, the distributor didn't carry it.

"We had to actually get a waiver that says they will allow us to buy off-contract," Branovan says.

He got a similar waiver to buy organic fresh fruit, and greens for the cafeteria salad bar. He hopes to add more organic and locally-grown foods.

Tomczyk says she's convinced hormone-free milk and organic food are healthier. She says an organization devoted to helping people heal, like a hospital, needs to think about healing in broad terms, even globally.

"And the introduction of pesticides and herbicides, and those (chemicals) getting into our water systems, it's that whole cycle," she says. "And we're using more and more these days, and I think it's just got out of hand."

Tomczyk says St. Luke's is the first hospital in the region to ask the buying group to supply hormone-free milk and organic vegetables. But hospitals and schools on the west and east coasts are doing it on a larger scale. James Pond is editor of FoodService Director, a trade magazine. He says the movement will grow.

"The pricing advantages will in some ways level out, where -- if it becomes important enough to the clientele -- the food service operators will respond by providing products in this manner," he predicts.

Some hospitals organize a farmer's market to serve their workers, as a way to introduce them to organic and local foods. Then they add those foods to the cafeteria and patient meals.

At St. Luke's, this year's holiday party for employees, will feature all-organic food, and much of it locally grown.