Did you know that Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician, Sidney Garfield, MD, was an innovator in prepaid health care, hospital design and … hospital food service?
In 1955, along with E. R. Park, coordinator of the Kaiser Permanente Dietary Departments, Dr. Garfield worked out the plans for introducing microwave ovens into Kaiser Foundation hospitals. Dr. Garfield was extremely proud of this experiment, claiming they would bring more flexibility to serving patients warm meals. In 1956, he wrote an unpublished article titled “Just a Second! Becomes a Truism With Microwave Ovens.”
In this age where “fresh and local” is synonymous with good, healthy food, it’s easy to smirk at the benefits of microwave ovens in food preparation. But, like the advent of refrigeration, this technological advance had its advantages in the preparation of hospital food. The microwave’s primary purpose was warming previously cooked meals when the patient was ready to eat.
The earliest microwave ovens were the size of a refrigerator, required water for cooling, and consumed massive amounts of electricity, thus limiting their usefulness. The Raytheon Corporation's first commercial model, the 1161 “Radarange,” was introduced in 1954. It would be another 10 years before Raytheon produced a microwave model that was user-friendly and inexpensive enough to become a universal kitchen accessory. Between 1965 and 1997, Raytheon’s consumer products were produced under the Amana name.
Dr. Garfield was an early adopter, bringing 1161s into Permanente’s new California hospitals at Harbor City, San Francisco, and Walnut Creek.
By the mid-1960s, the ovens had gotten small enough that they could be moved out of the kitchen and placed in nursing stations, closer to patient rooms. These were accompanied by refrigerators and hot water/coffee dispensers, creating kitchenettes throughout the facility.
In 1965, Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Clara Medical Center became the first in the organization to provide built-in microwave ovens on the nursing floors. The Bellflower Medical Center followed suit when it opened in 1965.
An article in the June 1967 issue of the trade publication “The Modern Hospital” examined how the Kaiser Foundation hospitals were embracing microwave ovens, a key part of what was called the “total convenience food system.” At that point, most of the 18 Kaiser Foundation hospitals in the Western states and Honolulu had converted or built into their new facilities a food service system using microwave ovens and prepared foods.
Kaiser Permanente food service consultant Marie Marinkovich said: “The difference between other hospitals' failure … and our success lies in the quality of the food being served … [our suppliers] cooperated with us fully in developing entrees, both for regular and special diets, that met our needs."
Microwave ovens continue to serve as part of the toolkit for providing healthy and appetizing hospital food. Jan Villarante, director of Kaiser Permanente’s National Nutrition Services, calls microwave ovens “workhorses“ and notes that every food service operation within the organization uses microwaves today.
See article on Kaiser Permanente's current efforts to develop sustainable food practices.
Pacemaker hazard warning graphic by Delmar Snider, MD, 1934-2017