Hospital food often gets a bad rap, but officials at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville and St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam say they hope to change that, and their food-service employees strive to make patients happy and cater to their needs.
Littauer recently overhauled its food-service program, streamlining the preparation of meals and personalizing the bedside service.
Working with its food-service contractor, Sodexo, the hospital designed a program in which the employees who deliver meals - now called "ambassadors" - are responsible for giving patients one-on-one service.
Stephen Kane delivers a lunch tray at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville on Dec. 7. Kane is one of the ambassadors who wait on patients as part of Littauer’s
new Expressly for You food-service program. (Bill Ackerbauer/The Leader-Herald)
Patients' meal selections used to be made in advance and then prepared assembly-line style. Now, one ambassador will take the patient's order, then go to the kitchen and personally prepare the patient's meal tray and deliver it. Then, like an attentive waiter at a restaurant, the same ambassador will check with the patient later to ask if the meal was okay.
"They're charismatic, and they put people at ease," said Tim Forte, director of nutrition services at Littauer. "We're trying to deliver something different."
Each patient sees an ambassador six times a day, hospital officials said.
"The team here came up with the idea, and Sodexo supported it," NLH President and Chief Executive Officer Laurence Kelly said last week. "We've done a lot of training."
He said the hospital invested more than $50,000 just in new kitchen equipment, among many other changes, but the main focus of the new system was to make the food more enjoyable and the service more personal.
"When somebody's in the hospital, they're not feeling well, there's tension, they're concerned, their family's concerned for them," Kelly said. "That's why we have nice rooms and nice TVs, and if we can also provide them with more personalized food service, then we should do it ... Hopefully, that will take a little bit of stress away from the patient's experience."
'Beyond room service'
Scott Norris, executive chef at Littauer, said the program "goes beyond room service."
"Instead of picking up a phone to order food, each patient gets a person who visits them, who is trained in customer service and eager to help."
Each ambassador serves about 20 to 25 patients per day under the new system, which is called "Expressly for You."
Stephen Kane, a 7-year-employee of the hospital, said he was a general kitchen worker before he became an ambassador a couple of months ago.
Washing pots and pans "got a little monotonous," he said, and he loves that his new job allows him to interact with the patients.
"You meet a lot of new people," Kane said. "When you become their favorite, that's the best thing ever ... It's a good feeling when they remember you."
Cheryl McGrattan, Littauer's public relations director, said patients' response to the new system has been positive.
Lee Neal of Caroga Lake has been a patient at Littauer several times, including hospital stays both before and after the food program was overhauled.
"It's improved a lot," she said. "A lot of the stuff had been coming up cold, and now it's coming up hot. The people who deliver the food here are great."
Neal said her only complaint was that sometimes, the ambassadors forget to offer alternative menu options.
"Other than that, it's been fine," she said.
At St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam, the food-service program is managed by Touchpoint Support Services, which contracts with St. Mary's parent organization, Ascension Health. The name "Touchpoint" refers to the many points at which patients come into contact with the people taking care of them, according to Mark Romani, director of food and nutrition services at St. Mary's.
When a patient is admitted to St. Mary's, the hospital's dietetic technicians, nurses and food-service employees work as a team to deliver their meals and see to their comfort.
"Someone's not just coming to the room and dropping off the tray," said Jerri Cortese, director of community and public relations at St. Mary's. "They're engaging with the patient and asking, 'Is everything okay?'"
Nathan Littauer Hospital's ambassadors enter a patient's menu selections using a hand-held tablet computer, which sends the order downstairs to the hospital kitchen. The meals are delivered faster, so they're hotter and fresher than under the previous system, Forte said. The new, expanded menu is on a rotating three-week cycle, though it offers an "all-time favorites" section with dishes that are available every day. Forte said more than 90 percent of the food served is made from scratch on the premises.
One day last week, the lunch menu featured several hearty options - macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, a beer-battered cod sandwich and turkey vegetable soup. (There was nary a dish of lime Jell-O in sight.)
"We've had a lot of compliments on the soups," said Ambassador Paula Costello, a 16-year employee of the hospital.
People in the local area like comfort food, Forte said.
"They say, 'We don't want things too complex, too fancy. We want things that are familiar to us,'" he said. "So when we built this menu, that's what we wanted to provide."
At St. Mary's, Romani said, older patients especially tend to be vocal about their comfort food.
"If we don't have macaroni and cheese on the menu at least once a week, we'll hear about it," he said. Other traditional items on the dinner menu at St. Mary's include meatloaf with gravy, stuffed shells and au gratin potatoes.
Not every patient can dig into a dish with gusto, however.
"Food is something to look forward to if you're well enough to eat," Romani said, acknowledging that many patients are too ill to truly enjoy their meals. "Some people will tell you 'I just don't feel good, nothing tastes good.'"
Many patients are on restricted diets. Those undergoing surgery often are limited to liquids before the operation and have to work their way back to solid food during recovery. For other patients, doctors may have to prescribe sodium, fat or fiber restrictions. These limitations upset some patients and present a challenge for the cooks and the service workers.
"Often, it's the first time [the patient has] received this diet," Romani said. "We try to teach them that it's a diet they might have to be on for the rest of their life. Most of the time, they'll understand and be happy, but not all."
Cooking under pressure
The kitchens at the local hospitals are busy operations. Nathan Littauer's kitchen staff prepares about 1,000 meals a day, serving both the acute-care patients in the main hospital and 88 patients in the attached nursing home. Norris said the hospital cafeteria also serves about 500 customers per day, and the staff sometimes caters hospital events.
Despite the volume of work, the kitchen was clean and quiet on a recent afternoon, just after the lunch-hour rush.
"And this is about as bad as it gets," Norris said, explaining the hospital has made a number of positive improvements to its food-service operation.
St. Mary's Healthcare has a kitchen at each of its two main facilities in Amsterdam. The kitchen at the hospital on Guy Park Avenue prepares about 700 meals a day, under the direction of Romani and Food and Nutrition Services Manager Joe Leone. The kitchen also prepares lunches for small day-treatment rehab clinics run by St. Mary's near the main campus.
At St. Mary's Memorial Campus, on Route 30, a separate kitchen overseen by Food and Nutrition Services Manager Sarah Pisarczyk is responsible for about 600 meals a day. It serves St. Mary's physical rehabilitation facility and its Wilkinson Residential Health Care Facility, a 160-bed skilled nursing home.
Pisarczyk said the nursing home has a four-week rotating menu, and because of the elderly residents' fading taste buds, the cooks there put extra effort into preparing tasty meals. They "bump up" the seasonings - such as onion and garlic - but not the salt, she said.
Many residents' meals need to be mashed or pureed because they have difficulty chewing, she said, and the staff sometimes has to be creative to make blended foods appealing. The residents' preferences - and sometimes their personal recipes - are reflected in the menu.
"'Alice's Baked Chicken' is on the menu," Pisarczyk said. "Alice was a resident for many years. We have adopted many family recipes."
Many residents are of Polish- and Italian-American descent and prefer certain traditional foods, while a growing number of Hispanic residents has brought new appetites to the facility. A few residents love spicy foods, Pisarczyk said, mentioning one woman who couldn't get enough jalapeno poppers.
The Wilkinson Center occasionally hosts an "appetizer happy hour," when residents are encouraged to try new foods.
"Try it once and give me a chance," she said. "You might like it."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.