Earlier this year, FM featured the University of California Davis Health (UCDH) as Innovator of the Month for its success in sourcing much of its food ingredient needs from local sources. That ongoing initiative has now also earned the health care facility’s meal program a 2022 FM Best Concept Award in the Best Sustainability Concept category. (For a photo tour of the show, go here.)
UCDH is in an enviable geographic location, almost within arm’s reach of the abundant agricultural regions of Northern California. That advantage has been increasingly exploited by the man overseeing dinner at the health care facility.
Executive Chef Santana Diaz joined UCDH in 2017 with a mandate to give a more “farm to table” emphasis to the program and was in full implementation when COVID hit. However, rather than being a hindrance, the pandemic has actually helped illustrate some of the advantages of sourcing local and working with smaller vendors, as they have proven to be more reliable and resilient than some national vendors.
That adds to the advantages that local produce has in terms of freshness and quality, something that has allowed Diaz to revise both retail and patient menus to emphasize a more homemade preparation with high-quality ingredients.
It’s no small effort, as the meal program serves about 6,500 meals a day in total.
Currently, UCDH sources up to 80% of its produce needs from local sources, depending on seasonal (quarterly) menu adjustments to take advantage of what is fresh at different times of the year. A company called Produce Express aggregates produce from hundreds of farmers in the state for the UCDH meal program, as well as supplies some necessary non-California-grown produce, like bananas, that have been grown and sourced ethically.
“So, if we are going to bring bananas [from out of state]at least we know they are Fair Trade and/or organic whenever possible,” says Díaz.
The beef served at UCDH is 100% organic and grass-fed, purchased from local vendors who source from several dozen California ranchers, while the chicken comes from a nearby Foster Farms operation and the lamb from Superior Farms in Dixon just a few miles away. Almost everything is fresh, which also helps conserve water that would otherwise have to be used to forcefully thaw frozen product if there is no space available in the cold rooms.
“It’s thousands and thousands of gallons of water going down the drain,” says Díaz, “so we take into account not only food waste, but also water waste and overproduction waste.”
Managing waste isn’t easy given the unpredictability of what some 13,000 employees at the site may choose to buy on any given day from various meal options, and Diaz doesn’t want to disappoint anyone by running out of popular options. One solution is to reuse unused ingredients in other dishes for the next day, which is made easier with staff service rather than waste-prone self-service models.
Retail is operated from three locations, and now that visitor restrictions have been lifted, the program is returning to pre-COVID numbers, Diaz notes, which means about 4,000 transactions on average per day between the three outlets. . That includes sales to night staff, as the Pavilion Café, the largest establishment, is open 9 p.m. a day and closes only between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.
Outside customers are also adding business, as the food and nutrition services program has branched out to supply the food program for WellSpace Health, an interim ambulatory care center located about two miles away, representing 160 meals additional for each meal period.
“We’ve gone from traditional ‘cafeterias’ to what are more like cafes, given the change in food quality we’re trying to offer in our spaces,” Diaz explains of his retail dining approach. The wok and grill stations remain, but the salad bar probably won’t return, as it tends to generate a lot of waste, something he’s determined to reduce, both for environmental and fiscal reasons.
“I’d rather donate than just throw it away, but you can’t donate something that’s been out for hours,” he says, “so we’re seeing a realignment of our food structure here.”
That realignment involves more staff composition than self-service, with many options changing daily. By keeping components behind the line and therefore “before consumption”, leftovers remain eligible for donation or reuse instead of being thrown away. Meanwhile, the staff that does most of the plate assembly controls cross-contamination and promotes quality. Food donations are made to local shelters through the COPIA program that works with DoorDash to transport the food.
Daily menus are based on themes such as the Mediterranean or India, with a growing emphasis on plant-based alternatives. For example, an Indian-themed menu might feature a traditional chicken tikka masala, but also a chickpea and kale curry that relies on whole, plant-based foods.
Feeding patients for the 646-bed medical center means producing between 1,700 and 1,800 meals a day, not counting tube feeding and other alternative nutrition services. The program currently operates on a traditional model, but plans call for the introduction of an on-demand room service approach with dedicated floor attendants who would meet patients on their floors and help with orders when needed.
To make it easier to source local produce, Diaz says he tries to build personal relationships with as many ranchers and farmers as he can, believing that personal observation of operations “with his boots on the ground” is preferable to simply taking representatives at their word. of the company on the characteristics of a particular entity. operations and practices.
“One of the reasons I like going to these [trips to farms and facilities] it’s just to connect and see what they’re doing with the shows, and it helps me answer questions if someone asks me about the products we’re serving,” he explains. “In this way, I can say with 100% certainty that it is what we say it is.”
Communications are also much easier with smaller vendors, who can provide more timely and reliable information about what is available and what is not, allowing Diaz and his team to plan menus more accurately. You are currently dealing with the drought situation in California that your suppliers are already telling you will likely affect summer crops, especially those that require a lot of water like cantaloupes, so summer menu planning needs to be taken into account it’s.
“I’m still planning things like summer squashes, but when it comes to fruit, it’s going to get interesting,” Diaz observes.
Going forward, the food service program looks to grow with new outlets, as UCDH is planning an expansion that is expected to eventually double in size. For example, a new bed tower is slated to include a new bistro, while the massive Aggie Square project, involving the university and medical center, may include a large catering facility and community outreach program.
Much of this is still in the planning stage, Diaz warns, “but if all of this moves forward, we would be looking to double the size of our food and nutrition services footprint.”
The prospect of dealing with such volume is hardly intimidating to someone whose resume includes serving as head chef for Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium and as executive chef at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, where his success in developing local partnerships made that the UCDH administrators asked for it. to take over the dining room operations of the medical center.
It was a challenge Diaz couldn’t resist even though he had no prior healthcare foodservice experience, having worked in restaurants and clubs prior to his stops in the world of high-end sports and entertainment. level. Now, more than four years later, he is forging a model of how a major health center can operate its food service with an emphasis on local and seasonal products, benefiting not only the customers of the dining room but also the community, where the UCDH is an anchor institution that can also model the benefits of a healthy diet for staff, visitors, and patients.
“Where else are you going to get the best quality food?” Diaz asks. “At your local fast food place? Probably not. As for fine-dining restaurants, they do a phenomenal job, but they don’t always look for the healthiest thing to serve. Look, I love butter and cream, although I don’t serve them as much as I used to. I have classical French training as a chef and culinary, but if no one else is teaching you the proper way to eat, shouldn’t you at least receive that level of care and quality of food in a hospital healthcare setting, when you need it most? ?”