Healthy Food Initiative Catching On In Kansas Hospitals

Oct 5, 2015

Theresa Ater prepares the evening meal in the cafeteria of Russell Regional Hospital.
Credit Bryan Thompson / Heartland Health Monitor

Few people associate hospitals with fine dining--hence the term “hospital food.” But a group of Kansas hospitals is out to change that.

Not only are they working to make the food they serve to patients, staff and visitors better, they’re working to make it healthier. Heartland Health Monitor’s Bryan Thompson traveled to northwest Kansas to visit one of the hospitals involved in the effort.

Standing at the cafeteria serving line at Russell Regional Hospital, the frozen yogurt machine humming in the background, administrator Harold Courtois is enthusiastic about the Healthy Kansas Hospitals initiative.

“Well, because we feel like, as a health care institution, we should be following what we tell people to do," he says.

Courtois admits they haven’t always done that in the past. Before he signed the Healthy Kansas Hospitals pledge, the cafeteria serving line featured a lot more foods that don’t meet the nutritional guidelines.

“You would find all kinds of cakes and pies, and things that are really a lot higher in calories, so we’re trying to provide a better option—maybe not the perfect option," he says.

Among the changes: If you’ll pardon the expression, they’ve “beefed up” the salad bar. It now offers a variety of leafy greens that are packed with far more nutrients than iceberg lettuce. Fried foods are still available sometimes, but there’s always a healthier grilled or baked option. But Courtois emphasizes that word, “option”.

“I just hate mandated healthy options," he says. "What we should do is educate people, and urge them to do it.”

One thing that’s not optional, though, is portion sizes.

“We bought smaller plates, and at first everybody complained. And now it’s the norm. It used to be, people filled the big plates full. Now they fill the small plates full, but there’s much less food," he says.

As a result, the hospital has been able to hold meal prices at about five dollars—even though the price of food has gone up. Dietary manager Sarah Depiesse concedes that there are certain compromises that have to be made—especially with the elderly patients in the long-term care unit upstairs. “Well, there’s still some things that we have to do in order to keep our patients happy. I mean, they’re a meat-and-potatoes community upstairs," she says.

Meanwhile, the healthier meal options in the cafeteria are starting to catch on with the hospital staff and visitors. But, Depiesse says, it’s a gradual process.

“It’s really hard to make people change their ways, and to go from the more fulfilling, hearty, homestyle meals to kale, and peppers, and really bright, vibrant vegetables and fruits," she says. "All we can do is show them, and hope that they make the better choice.”

The changes have even created a new, albeit small, line of business for the hospital. Depiesse says several members of Russell’s business community have started showing up for lunch. That reinforces dietician Linda Yarrow’s view that, over time, people will come to appreciate having healthier food options. Yarrow teaches nutrition at Kansas State University.

“The public is becoming more and more aware, because they know that obesity and overweight is a problem. Everybody can name somebody that’s got diabetes or high blood pressure," Yarrow says. "And I am seeing people becoming more interested in about maybe what can I do as a preventive measure, instead of waiting until they’re diagnosed.”

The changes go beyond the hot meals served at hospitals. They're also making an effort to include healthier options among the snacks and drinks that are available at all hours. In some cases, they're even rearranging the line-up of snacks and drinks in vending machines--to give unsweetened drinks, for example, the prime “real estate”.

Yarrow says it will be a very gradual process, but she thinks educating the public and leading by example can ultimately make a difference.

Josh Mosier thinks so, too. He’s heading the healthy hospitals initiative, and he says he can already see some momentum. Seventy-seven of Kansas’s 126 hospitals have pledged to review their food and beverage policies.