Chef James Ablett examining tomatoesExecutive Sous Chef James Ablett examines locally grown tomatoes, which are added into fresh prepackaged salads for patients, visitors and employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into all aspects of daily life. However, if there’s one positive ray of light, UC Davis Medical Center’s kitchen staff has proven a healthy and beneficial food procurement model is one that can be implemented across the country.

The Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) team have worked hard to create an institutionally scaled farm-to-fork model that demonstrates the value of sourcing food from local farmers and ranchers.

“We’ve been able to keep in constant communication with our local farmers and ranchers while looking at changes where necessary,” said Norman Tellez, Purchasing Manager for the health system’s FNS food operation. “We bypassed supply chain gapping because we source our food locally.”

In the beginning, the FNS team was unsure of what to expect given what New York was experiencing at the time. No one knew if Northern California was also going to become a hot spot for COVID-19 and experience a similar surge. The FNS staff reimagined food delivery for patients and food services in the hospital’s retail outlets.

“We streamlined and reduced menu options within our retail cafés to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” Executive Sous Chef James Ablett said. “One example of this was we shut down the Wok Station to reduce unnecessary lines and replaced the self-service salad bar with fresh, individual house-made packaged salads. We needed to examine the flow of the retail spaces in order to minimize crowding as much as possible.”

“Being able to still offer fruit from our local farms in all of our café locations without any sourcing gaps is a huge community benefit during these times,” Retail Manager Sandra Bullock said.

Although things have shifted a bit for kitchen staff, the food operation has ironically revealed another benefit of the farm-to-fork program.

“By sourcing as much food as we can locally and having strong community vendor relationships, our food program has avoided many of the supply chain issues that have been experienced across the country,” Executive Sous Chef Jet Aguirre said.

Staff slicing avocados

The “good food is good medicine” program is still offered to UC Davis Health patients, visitors, and staff all due to the now-established food service model.

“Supply chains are especially important when providing medically tailored meals for patients who have special dietary restrictions (38 different diets in total),” said Sky Baucom-Slavin, patient services manager. “Had we experienced supply chain gapping, it would have been difficult to provide the quality standard of meals that we serve while meeting patient needs.”

Executive Chef Santana Diaz said the proof of concept was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic due to how FNS’s procurement is set up.

“We were unaffected by the hog and beef processing gaps that took place in the Midwest and negatively impacted much of the existing food system model,” Diaz said. “A great percentage of the proteins we source come from within our state of California.”

UC Davis Health’s food operation hopes that other institutional kitchens will see that a clean, source transparent, and community supported food program has many positive outcomes – most importantly the added health benefits.

“Our food service model is focused on local sourcing, nutrition and taste,” Diaz said. “We want to be as transparent as possible with our procurement to solidify trust within our industry so that hospital food can look and taste great too.”