Like prepackaged vending-machine sandwiches and shrink-wrapped airline meals, hospital food has often been a grumble-inducing option for hungry patients, visitors and employees who, by circumstance, must eat in a hospital room or cafeteria.
At UC Davis Medical Center, however, that bleak food landscape is fast disappearing. Visitors and employees are now able to enjoy locally sourced menu options in the health system’s cafés, thanks to the inspired vision of the hospital’s new executive chef, Santana Diaz. And, within the coming year, he and the UC Davis food services team are also planning to offer farm-to-fork meals to hospital patients.
Diaz oversees the largest production kitchen in Sacramento. He and the UC Davis Food and Nutrition Services department serve more than 6,500 meals a day to hospital patients, employees and visitors at three locations on the Sacramento campus.
With a determined ‘farm-to-fork’ focus, Diaz is deftly upending the traditions of an industrial-sized kitchen like a cook flipping the perfect omelet. Rather than relying on highly processed foods or trays of pre-mixed, heat-n-serve meals, this skilled chef is shifting toward whole-food and plant-based ingredients.
Recipes for success: Health and sustainability
Diaz is working with local ranchers to source meats and fish. He’s getting his feet muddy scouting fields of organic produce. And his computer is quickly filling with hundreds of healthy recipes that he’s researched and created in a tireless quest to obtain healthier foods for both patients and those who eat on UC Davis’ Sacramento campus.
“When it comes to food, we’re incredibly fortunate our medical center is located right here in the Sacramento Valley,” Diaz said. “We’re surrounded by farms and ranches, orchards and crops. We actually have the ability to keep things local, sustainable and very healthy. Our goal is to source most of the entire food program from within 250 miles of our campus, which is probably unheard of for a kitchen of this size.”
The 250-mile radius incorporates the growing seasons within the Sacramento Valley, while also encompassing coastal farmers and ranchers. Diaz says most all of the proteins on his menus, including poultry, fresh-water fish and grass-fed beef, will be sourced within 30-to-120 miles of the medical center.
• Real food procurement: sourcing more locally produced foods, including menus featuring UC Davis-produced honey and olive oil.
• Education: Building more awareness about healthy, sustainable foods among staff, visitors and patients so as to improve health overall and enhance healing. As an academic medical center, UC Davis is a top training location for dietitians who plan to work in health care, especially in the patient-care environment of hospitals.
• Active community engagement: The UC Davis mission is to discover and share knowledge. Diaz often works in the local community, including the health system’s weekly farmers’ market, as well as conducting cooking demonstrations at events to expand awareness about healthy foods and eating.
• Less waste operations: The focus on reducing waste is always a challenge for large institutions. Reducing waste can mean reducing costs and being more environmentally friendly. The University of California’s goal is strive to procure 20 percent sustainable food products (meaning local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources) by the year 2020. UC Davis Health is currently at 16 percent of that goal, but Diaz hopes to go well beyond 20 percent by year’s end.
The chef, who most recently served as the executive chef for the Golden One Center, honed his skills at a variety of restaurants, including the highly regarded Taste Restaurant in Plymouth and The Firehouse in Old Sacramento, as well as working as the personal sous chef for the Sacramento Kings. He also served as a lead chef in the 2017 Tower Bridge dinner. Foodies can now have regular access to Chef Diaz’s cuisine in the UC Davis Medical Center’s cafés, without waiting for a once-a-year event. Best of all, most of the medical center’s menu items cost less than $9.
Diaz’s adventurous approach to food and cooking is reflected in the effort he’s making to connect with local food producers such as UC Davis alum Michael Bosworth of Next Generation Foods for rice from the Rue & Forsman Ranch near Marysville; the Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse for its salmon and fresh water fish; and Woodland’s Panorama Meats for its organic, grass-fed beef. And he’s working with the university’s student farm in Davis — after all, UC Davis is a world leader in agricultural research and education — to source some of the vegetables for the medical center, too.
By purchasing much of its food from sources almost within view of hospital’s tallest tower, UC Davis can reduce delivery mileage and fuel consumption, lower its carbon footprint and provide a healthy economic boost for locally produced, high-quality foodstuffs, according to Diaz.
“Our ideal menu is going to be cleaner, healthier, locally grown and delivered — foods that will help in healing as much as meals eagerly enjoyed by café visitors and employees alike,” Diaz added. “We’re planning to serve up organic wherever possible. These will be artisanal, quality foods, prepared in a warehouse-sized kitchen, which will offer the taste and excellence of a small restaurant across thousands of meals every day.”
Diaz noted that he’s coordinating with the hospital’s dietitians and food managers to create recipes literally from scratch to overcome an overreliance on highly processed, nutrient-poor foods that are often the foundation of production food services because of their ease-of-use and extended shelf life.
Stellar tastes, sustainable principles
Known for creating mouth-watering dishes, customized menus and specialty items, Diaz and his team are incorporating the University of California’s Sustainable Practices Policy into a four-part approach to revamping the medical center’s food services. Although the program is not limited to finite boundaries – because food can touch people in many ways — most policy elements fall under an acronym that best describes UC Davis Medical Center’s new food program direction: “REAL” [see sidebar accompanying this article].
To prepare for in-patient food services, Diaz and his team started by rolling out the healthy new menu items in the hospital’s catering department, supplying a unique buffet for every major event around the medical center. As new recipes and ingredients gain taste-test approval, they are being added to the café menus, station-by-station, from the grill, wok and salad bar to the pizza oven.
“This is a giant shift for our cooks, dietitians and the entire food and nutrition services team,” Diaz added. “It’s one thing for a restaurant to embrace the farm-to-fork approach, but it becomes something entirely different to have a facility of our size execute that feat. I already see the energy and enthusiasm in our kitchen shifting because what we are doing is so new and different. It’s exciting, and everyone benefits.”
Ultimately, the Food and Nutrition Services team hopes UC Davis Medical Center becomes a role model for the other hospitals around the state, and perhaps around the country. They’re committed to proving that sustainable, healthy food practices are possible, and will result in better-tasting and more nutritious meals that promote healing and long-term health.
After all, as the Chef Diaz likes to say, “Good food is good medicine.”