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Chef fights obesity epidemic with 'hospital food'

  • August 5, 2010
  • Number of views: 4609
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Contact: Kathryn Holleman
(314) 286-0303
[email protected]

(ST. LOUIS) Recent studies show that more Americans than ever are obese. Barnes-Jewish Hospital chef Christian Miller is attacking this problem by getting employees, visitors and neighbors of the hospital eat more hospital food.

But this hospital food isn’t the usual jello and beef broth, but fresh, locally grown produce and dinner “kits” with entrees like chicken with grilled peach salsa or ginger lime sauce and tilapia en papilotte. 

The food is sold at an “indoor farmers market” in the hospital’s main cafeteria.

“The idea is to offer employees a healthy, easy, affordable choice for dinner,” said Tony Starks, food service director at Barnes-Jewish.

Miller, executive chef at Barnes-Jewish, said the produce and meals also address a problem facing many of the hospital’s lower income support staff who live in the urban area surrounding the hospital – lack of access to affordable fresh food.

“There are many socio-economic levels at the hospital,” Miller said. “And the lower income neighborhoods tend to have a lack of supermarkets or farmers markets.”

Miller, who like Starks, is employed by Morrison Healthcare which runs the Barnes-Jewish food service, had previously cooked for upscale resorts, hotels and cruise lines.

But his New Jersey roots were humble, he said.

“I grew up in lower-income housing,” he said. “In an Irish-Italian family, food was love. But you ate what was on the table. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the healthiest.”

As a result, he’s made it his mission to educate employees about good nutrition and teach them that healthy food can be delicious, too, he said.

“Morrison’s was doing a “farmers market” promotion for the beginning of summer,” Miller said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we think about doing that 365 days a year?’”

Now an entire refrigerator case in the cafeteria is filled bunches of asparagus, boxes of strawberries, zucchini, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions and other fruits and vegetables as seasonably available. As much produce as possible is locally grown – meaning that comes from within 150 miles of St. Louis and is within one day of being picked or harvested.

The dinner kits include pre-cooked chicken with a container of low-fat sauce and vegetables, suitable for stir-frying. The fish used in kits is certified “sustainable” and the chicken is cage-free.

Dinners are pre-cooked and just need to be reheated according to direction on the front of the package. They serve a family of four. And they are priced so that all employees can afford them, especially with the 30 percent discount hospital employees receive in the cafeteria.

“There’s a myth that nutritious food costs a lot more,” Miller said. “The difference between fresh, healthy food and processed junk is really only pennies on the dollar.”

Miller said that one reason for this is that Americans have no idea about portion control. The typical entrée he produces for takeout meals is designed to feed a family of four, with four four- to six-ounce chicken breasts or pieces of fish, and accompanying sauces or salsas and vegetable.

However, people often think the package is meant to feed just two people – resulting in people eating twice the amount they should. People don’t realize that they can feel full without feeling “stuffed” he said.

Miller and Starks said that they realized it might take a while for the concept of healthy eating to catch on with all employees, but they’re ready to continue pushing the idea for as long as it takes.

“We just really want to educate people,” Starks said. “Being healthy is what’s behind this whole thing.”

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