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What the Doctor Ordered

Fletcher Allen's cafeterias serve up good food - for the body and wallet


Published March 31, 2009 at 5:21 p.m.

In tough times, fast food can suddenly seem a lot more appealing. Though the strains of Wesley Willis’ “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” may ring in my head (“Quarter pounders are the worst / They will put pounds on you”), cheap eats with no prep time can’t be beat. But if you’re looking to get a plate of beef tips over healthy brown rice with a low-fat dessert for under $5, don’t hit the local fast-food strip. Try The Dunbar Café. Did I mention it’s at the Fanny Allen Campus of Fletcher Allen Health Care?

Yep. In the spirit of sharing cost-saving tips, I pass on a piece of knowledge I have long hoarded: Hospital food is awesome. During my seven years as what I called a full-time “sick kid,” suffering from chronic neurological Lyme disease, I spent most of my late teens and early twenties in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices. Many survivors of serious illness like to expound on how their hardships made them better people. I just learned that Fletcher Allen dining services kick ass.

I know, I know. Hospitals have negative connotations for some. People die there. But people are also born there, and people get well there. I did. My advice: Suck it up. It’s probably the cleanest place you’ll ever eat, and once your mouth is full, you’ll forget that the guy next to you literally just held someone’s heart in his hands. Also, if you have a Jewish mother, she’ll be really proud if you pick up a date there.

Nearly six years after I won the battle to get well, my Jewish mother and I still make it a habit to meet for lunch at The Pavilion, University Health Center’s cafeteria. Last time we stopped by, the cook-to-order menu offered pad thai for $4.50. (Match that, Tiny Thai!) We love to accompany our Boyden burgers with delicious golden beets, a far more ladylike option than fries.

The absence of greasy, deep-fried delights is one thing that sets Fletcher Allen apart from most eateries in a similar price range. As Daria Holcomb, manager of dining services for the entire complex, explains, “You can eat here for less than at McDonald’s or Al’s, and you won’t be doing harm to yourself.”

Fries disappeared from the menu, Holcomb says, when one of the hospital’s fryers broke. Holcomb and Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services, made the choice not to buy “another of something we didn’t want.” Expecting a backlash, Holcomb says she was pleasantly surprised to receive only three letters of complaint. “One was from a doctor, though,” she recalls with an eye roll.

For years, the hospital meal plan has adhered to the “Mediterranean diet,” a variation on the USDA food pyramid that promotes the heart health naturally found in that part of the world. In April 2006 — less than a year after Holcomb joined the Fletcher Allen team — the food service staff signed a pledge with Health Care Without Harm, a group devoted to making hospitals environmentally sustainable. The “Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge” requires its signers to take defined steps to improve “the health of our patients, our staff and the local and global community.”

One step is serving less fatty food. Another is reducing waste. Fletcher Allen now uses disposable cups made from corn by a company called Fabri-Kal, and the cafeterias’ utensils are polymerized from the proteins of potato waste by Tater Ware, whose website promises that the cutlery will fully degrade in 60 to 90 days.

Besides a decrease in calories, the most significant change to the food at Fletcher Allen in the last three years has been in suppliers. “We’ve been working at building relationships with local farms who can do the volume we need,” says Holcomb. That’s no small task, as she estimates that the hospital serves 5000 people a day in its cafeteria alone.

Currently, some 30 Vermont food companies contribute to the Fletcher Allen menus. Ready-made treats such as Island Ice Cream, Bruegger’s Bagels and Nutty Steph’s Vermont Granola are just the beginning. Vegetables come from Lewis Creek Farm and the Intervale — also the final resting place of the hospitals’ organic waste. “We hope our products are nurtured by our own compost,” says smiling Holcomb, who bares an uncanny resemblance to actress Emma Thompson.

While no Vermont poultry farms have been able to keep up with Fletcher Allen’s demand (antibiotic-free chicken comes from FreeBird in Pennsylvania), Boyden Beef of Cambridge is a hit. “Boyden sirloin burgers we use everywhere because people like it so much,” says Holcomb, noting that the patties are among the few dishes served at every location.

To help fill any voids, the hospital is getting into the food, production biz itself. Some veggies from the small “Healing Garden” — located outside Fanny Allen’s infusion room — made it into dinner last summer. This year, bees are on the menu — or rather, on staff. Hives on the Fanny Allen property currently await a shipment of the buggers. The new oncology building to open next year on the Fletcher Allen campus will be home to a substantial rooftop garden. Holcomb hopes to be able to open the space to a few area growers, and even to offer a CSA.

How do Holcomb and crew reconcile their ideals with friendly prices? “It’s not like we don’t want to make a profit,” she ventures. “We do, but we want it to be affordable. So we work on a smaller profit margin.” Weekly food-cost meetings allow the dining staff to determine what’s working and what can be adjusted to fit their lofty goals. “We found these straws that are not only biodegradable, but so is the wrapper,” says Holcomb excitedly, describing an upcoming policy change. “I decided to spend more for the straw but get rid of fountain soda, so we won’t be using as many anyway.”

Fast food without fountain soda? The cafeterias may be wholesome, but they’re not punitively so. Holcomb believes the quality-driven menu can be chalked up to the ample restaurant experience both she and CIA-trained Executive Chef Richard Jarmusz possess. Holcomb spent 30 years managing fine dining spots, including Francesca’s in Shelburne and Café Espresso in Williston, until she got burned out by the “grind of nights and weekends. I wanted to be in food,” she says, “but learn the nutrition components and really make a difference.”

Everything patients and visitors taste must first pass muster with a panel of testers, even the prepacked “Grab and Go” sandwiches and salads. “We’re a diverse group and have a good cross-section. We want people to feel involved, so some of our leadership group, like our VPs, will come and test,” says Holcomb.

Certain dishes are served throughout the Fletcher Allen cafeteria system, but recipes are left up to the individual chef. Chicken marsala, for example, is available on the patient room-service menu and at the Main Street Café and UHC’s Pavilion. Holcomb expresses pride in UHC’s chef, Ron Sweeten, and his spin of accompanying the dish with risotto.

Menus change seasonally, but each outlet has a unique identity. The Dunbar Café, with its shepherd’s pie, corn chowder and Weight Watchers three-point desserts, is all about healthy, homestyle American. Sweeten’s choices at The Pavilion are creative: chicken pot pie with a cranberry biscuit, say, or ethnic offerings such as mulligatawny soup and sesame noodles. The Main Street Café is more New American, with rotating panini and quesadilla options as well as regular pizzas and cooked-to-order dishes such as almond-crusted salmon with artichoke pesto and butternut squash pilaf.

As for patient fare, it’s progressed way beyond stewed prunes (though they are on the menu). Bruschetta is offered as a starter, and seafood risotto is a popular entrée. Holcomb says even Cornish game hens have made it onto the roster.

The first weeks of May will see the opening — or landing — of a new hospital dining spot on the ground floor of the McClure Building, which Holcomb describes as “the starship of our program.” Called The Harvest Café, it will be something of a culmination of the staff’s vision of healthy, delicious local food. The space will be dominated by a 20-foot-long fruit, salad and soup bar. Holcomb says every item will be marked with its place of origin; all coffee will be Fair Trade. Besides the options already available upstairs at the Main Street Café, the new location will house a grill station where Holcomb foresees the cooks whipping up fresh fish as well as burgers, chicken sandwiches and the like. A made-to-order station will sometimes be a pasta bar, sometimes offer stir-fries, sometimes customize wraps and quesadillas. The “Grab and Go” section will be spacious enough to walk through and is cooled in the winter by outside air as an energy-saving measure.

Is this the future of hospital food? Maybe. Representatives of Fletcher Allen nutrition services and Healthy Food in Health Care held a seminar last Friday, just down the hall from the unfinished Harvest Café, to advocate their system to other hospitals. Folks from Dartmouth-Hitchcock, which currently houses a food court featuring the likes of Sbarro, expressed interest in following suit. Sharon Anderson, a dietitian at St. Johnsbury’s Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, said her cafeteria recently discontinued fries.

Holcomb chalks up the low price and high quality of her food to a holistic, from-scratch ethos. As she poses for the Seven Days photographer holding a slice of pizza, I pronounce the sauce excellent. Both it and the chewy whole-wheat dough are made on the premises, Holcomb says; the mozzarella comes from Via Cheese in Swanton. Of Italian heritage herself, Holcomb “grew up in a family that made their own pasta, bread and sauces. I gravitated toward that,” she says. At Fletcher Allen, Holcomb notes, “We can charge less because we make everything.” And when restaurants use local products, she adds, “The whole Vermont economy benefits. The town the farms are in — maybe the schools will get better.”

Great ideals, but I’m all about taste. (I’d eat a can of dog chow from Taiwan if it were well seasoned.) What matters is that I know I can pop into the hospital complex 22 hours of the day and buy a plate of Moroccan Spiced Flank Steak for less than it costs to make a burger at home. Talk about comfort food.