Food as Medicine: Hospitals Emphasize Taste, Nutrition and Choice


Ricky Iverson, executive director of patient services and nutrition services at UAMS
Ricky Iverson, executive director of patient services and nutrition services at UAMS (Karen E. Segrave)
UAMS patient and nutrition services team member Maurice Jones Jr., far right, slices tomatoes as Jennifer Martin helps Latazanee Hatley wash freshly chopped romaine lettuce.
UAMS patient and nutrition services team member Maurice Jones Jr., far right, slices tomatoes as Jennifer Martin helps Latazanee Hatley wash freshly chopped romaine lettuce. (Karen E. Segrave)
Henry Willis checks a cart containing breakfast trays at UAMS
Henry Willis checks a cart containing breakfast trays at UAMS (Karen E. Segrave)
UAMS patient and nutrition services team member Linda Todd prepares breakfast trays for hospital patients.
UAMS patient and nutrition services team member Linda Todd prepares breakfast trays for hospital patients. (Karen E. Segrave)
Ann Rawls, a UAMS nutrition services team member, slices into a Snickers cake
Ann Rawls, a UAMS nutrition services team member, slices into a Snickers cake (Karen E. Segrave)

With increased emphasis on taste and quality, hospital food appears to be losing its reputation for blandness, though the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly inflation, pose challenges to hospital food service.

The room service model, in which patients choose their meals from a hospital menu, is replacing the practice of tray delivery in which the patient gets no or very little say about his meal. In several Arkansas hospitals, the changeover began three to four years ago.

Food safety and nutrition are the paramount concerns, but appeal, choice and variety are essential too, hospital food service officials told Arkansas Business. And when it comes to food service in hospitals, that includes retail options like cafeterias serving guests and employees down to vending machines.

St. Bernards Medical Center moved to the room service model about three-and-a-half years ago, said Stacy Hindman, nutritional services director. “My background is as a dietician, so it was important to me to change over to room service because I saw how difficult it was just to get patients to eat, so I wanted them to be able to eat when they wanted and eat what they wanted,” she said.

The ability of patients to choose their food is important to their clinical outcomes, said Mary Rhode, regional vice president of Sodexo, the hospitality company that provides food service to nine of Baptist Health’s hospitals in Arkansas. Baptist Health in Little Rock alone serves more than 1 million meals a year.

“When they’re talking to our call center and we’re helping navigate that choice on their prescribed diet, we’re always educating them on how prescribed diets helped their outcomes, so they can take that home with them,” she said. “I call it food as medicine.”

The numbers involved in health care food service are huge. The U.S. health care food service market is projected to reach $22.8 billion by 2026 compared with $13.2 billion in 2021, according to a March report by MarketsandMarkets, a market research company. That includes patient food and retail services like cafeterias in hospitals and long-term care, nursing and rehabilitation centers. In 2020, the acute-care settings segment (hospitals) accounted for the largest share, the report said.

The Medical Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences serves about 10,000 meals a day. Food service — providing meals to patients, employees, guests, students and contractors — cost UAMS $15.6 million in the last fiscal year, ending June 30, said Ricky Iverson, executive director of patient services and nutrition services at UAMS.

Iverson oversees about 250 employees, with 150-160 of those involved in food service. “The primary goal is, obviously, taking care of patients,” he said. “That comes first.”

As it did with most aspects of life, the pandemic challenged hospital food service providers. Quarantining because of employees’ own exposure or illness or that of family led to staff shortages, Iverson said.

Although operations are returning to normal, supply chain issues remain a problem, as they do with restaurants and other food providers.

But inflation may be the biggest concern. At UAMS, food service inputs, defined as food costs and labor, increased 8.6% in the last fiscal year, Iverson said. Examples of some of the biggest increases, comparing September 2021 to September 2022, include shelled eggs, up 60.4%; fresh potatoes, up 59.6%; and butter and margarine, up 59.3%.

At St. Bernards, Hindman said, food costs alone had increased 14% in the last year. “That means some things have gone down, while some things have gone sky-high,” she said. Chicken thighs, for example, have increased 37% in the past four years. “Meat, cheese, produce — those are the things that have really increased in pricing,” Hindman said.

St. Bernards has adjusted through a number of tactics, among them switching to meatless options, having baked potato bars and offering pasta dishes. “Now, in all this, we’ve not changed our patient menu, because the patient is the most important thing,” she said.

But the pandemic also presented opportunities, said Rhode, of Sodexo. As restaurants laid off employees early in the pandemic, Sodexo looked at that as an opportunity “to pull in culinary talent into the health care sector, so we built on our culinary team,” she said.

As for hospital food trends, local sourcing remains important. UAMS Medical Center has a 20% goal for local food sourcing.

And when it comes to offering appealing food, feedback from customers is important, Iverson said, adding that theme days like Asian-Pacific day are popular.

But nutrition remains the first consideration. Hindman said, “You can give people medicine all day long, but until they get the proper nutrition, they’re not going to heal like they need to, so food service and the food that we give our patients is so extremely important.”