October 2014 Issue

Legacy of Healthful Foodservice Henry Ford Hospital’s Wellness Program Continues to Set High Standards
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 10 P. 74

It seems logical that all hospitals would promote wellness not only from a healing standpoint but from a maintenance perspective as well. While hospitals are focused on getting people better, keeping patients healthy long term also means promoting healthful eating, exercise, and overall good health practices during a hospital stay and beyond. Unfortunately many hospitals serve food that physicians recommend avoiding. Chicken fingers, French fries, and soda often are popular items in hospital cafeterias and kitchens. But Henry Ford Health System in Michigan has set out to change some of these unhealthful practices and has become an example for other hospitals of what can be achieved.

Health and Wellness Pioneers 
Henry Ford Hospital was built by Henry Ford and opened its doors in 1915. Ford was a pioneer in wellness and was ahead of his time with some of his initiatives. He didn’t hire smokers, something that’s only recently become a trend. In fact, if he found an employee smoking on company grounds, he would fire them on the spot. Ford also worked with brands such as Kellogg’s to encourage healthful, nurturing food to be sold on site.

“From our early days, wellness has always been the foundation of our health system,” says Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Our mission statement is ‘Transforming lives and communities through health and wellness—one person at a time,’ and that’s something that has become part of our identity.”

Thayer says this mission also has included a closer look at what was being done from a foodservice perspective. There were some changes that had to be made. In addition to the two hospitals that were built under the Henry Ford name, several others were acquired, meaning various food vendors were involved. As a result, the overall program lacked consistency and control. Becoming a self-run operation was just one of the many changes the organization made to improve the food program.

Making Changes
“Several years ago we made the decision to be a self-operation business for foodservice,” Thayer says. “Today all of our food systems are Henry Ford employees, and we all work together to leverage our purchasing power. While smaller hospitals may have always self-operated, for a system as large as ours it’s definitely a unique undertaking. Bringing everything in house has allowed us to save money, leverage resources, and do some really wonderful things.”

Eliminating trans fats was just one of the changes that the leveraging power has allowed Henry Ford to make. While some of the smaller bakeries the hospital works with pushed back and initially said they couldn’t eliminate trans fats, the purchasing power of working together ultimately succeeded. And that was just the beginning. Removing all deep fat fryers on campus was another major change.

“This was a significant undertaking, and we expected to hear some complaints, but we did it [by developing] a strategy that we stuck to,” says John Miller, systems director of culinary wellness. “Part of that strategy was to also give back. We didn’t want patrons or patients to feel as though we were just taking their favorite foods away. So we brought in action stations where they make stir fry or other fresh foods made to order in front of the customer. We also switched our fried chicken, which was definitely a popular menu item, for a panko bread–crusted chicken. People still love it. We showed that some of these new options could be just as popular.”

Another impressive venture involved the addition of a greenhouse at the Henry Ford West Bloomfield location. This 1,500-square-foot greenhouse allows the hospital chef to call greenhouse employees to find out what fresh foods the farmer has on hand. “That food is harvested and goes to plate in less than 24 hours in both cafeterias and patient dining,” Thayer says.

And the organization is always looking for ways to improve. For example, they’re about to implement an app that cafeteria customers can download to get complete nutrition information on any food item. That will include the identification of food allergens and will make the overall dining experience safer and more informative.

All of these changes have been possible because of support from senior leadership, Thayer adds. In order for other organizations to make similar changes, it’s critical that everyone works together. “Support has to come from the top and we’ve been lucky to have that,” she says. “We have a culinary wellness team that has partnered with the system’s registered dietitians, and we all work together. We have multiple goals—that the food is healthful, well priced, and tastes good—and those goals require different efforts from different groups. Working together is key.”

Good and Healthful
While initially many feared that these changes would be problematic, patients and cafeteria diners are, as a whole, enjoying the food. Many have expressed that they didn’t realize healthful eating could taste so good. Miller says that stuffed cabbage rolls made with ground turkey are just one example of a healthful and popular menu item.

“Patients also love our veggie stir fry and our chicken piccata, which we make with fresh cutlets that are seasoned and served with artichokes,” Miller says. “Fifteen years ago having these kinds of foods on a hospital menu was practically unheard of. Today it’s becoming pretty standard. We’re not only bringing in culinary experts but we’re training our existing staff on how to make these items. They sound intimidating but it’s not actually that much work.”

Taste testing helped patrons get excited about new menu items by allowing them to try a dish they might not have purchased. In the end, Miller says, instead of permanently losing business because of these changes, they created a whole new market.

“When we served so many fried items there was always a component of the population that wasn’t going to dine with us because they viewed it as unhealthful,” Miller says. “Once we made these healthful changes we not only captured this new audience that wasn’t dining with us before, we also retained many of the patrons that have always dined with us. Even many of those that went away for a short while came back. We were able to increase sales by 7% in 2013 from 2012.”

In general, the food preparation has gotten leaner and healthier. Many of the changes have not had an impact on taste. For instance, a switch to 95% lean ground beef was easy to disguise with the right seasonings. “It’s all in the preparation,” Miller says. “If we can season a leaner meat the right way—without using salt of course—we can serve a healthier product that people still think tastes great.”

Ultimately it comes down to taste. If people don’t like it, they won’t buy it. “While all of these changes sound wonderful on paper, at the end of the day, the food has to taste good,” Thayer says. “We’re proud to say that the increase in sales proves that people like the healthier food and healthier recipes we’ve implemented. At the end of the day that’s what drives us.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.