November 5, 2018

Garden grown: A fresh take on hospital food

Local, plant-based ingredients take center stage on the menu at Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Oregon.

You can't get any fresher or more local than just-picked produce from the garden. That's why Heidi Thompson, food-and-nutrition services manager at Westside Medical Center, decided to try growing herbs and vegetables right there at the hospital.

Parsley from the garden garnishes patient trays, and the herbs and veggies enliven menu offerings at Westside Medical Center’s Courtyard Café. The experiment fits in perfectly with Kaiser Permanente's mission of helping members choose healthful, plant-based foods.

"Being very local is cost-effective and great for the environment. It's also very fresh, which is good for nutrients," Thompson said. "That's the beauty and benefit of growing your own and having it right there."

She and her staff started with an 18-foot diameter round bed for herbs in spring 2017. They harvested $700 worth of herbs that season, including mint, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and parsley.

Last May, staff planted 115 vegetable starts in four on-site raised beds that are roughly 12-feet-by-4-feet. Over the summer, the garden produced lettuce, beets, spaghetti squash, leeks, purple scallions, heirloom tomatoes, a variety of peppers and such edible flowers as nasturtiums. For fall, the staff planted fall crops of rainbow carrots, scallion, purple broccoli and beets.

Evolution to healthier menu

The Courtyard Café treats customers to creations featuring the garden's bounty — for example, chicken marinated in herbs from the garden, grilled and served over the ultra-local Red Sails and Buttercrunch Bibb lettuces. Look for the "Garden Grown" logo on the café menus and patient tray tickets.

Westside Medical Center's food-and-nutrition service department — like those at other Kaiser Permanente facilities — strives to provide a bulk of café choices that are lower in fat and sodium. The café does not sell any sugar-sweetened beverages.

"The menu has evolved bit by bit to offer more interesting and healthier choices," Thompson said.

Scott Scales, Westside Medical Center chef and food and nutrition supervisor harvests a spaghetti squash from the medical center’s garden.

She credits the ingenuity of her staff. For example, Scott Kaopua, one of the cooks, focuses on creative salads with grilled protein as his specialty. He candies nuts, toasts cornbread croutons and mixes dressings to give salads extra oomph.

Courtyard Café diners appreciate his and other staff members' effort. Customer feedback has been 95 percent positive so far this year, Thompson said. One customer remarked, "I no longer go to out to eat. My friends and family meet me here instead." Other customers said they go to the medical center for lunch, even when they don't have doctor appointments there.

Now that patients are enjoying eating the ultra-local produce, Thompson would like to get them involved with growing it.

"Eventually I would like this to be an education piece for our patients," Thompson said. Gardening not only produces fresh vegetables packed with nutrition, but the activity itself also provides many benefits including fresh air, light exercise and a feeling of accomplishment.