Food served in hospitals has long been notorious for being both unhealthy and unappetizing.

Cooking Well Invitational

What: Cooking Well Invitational, emceed by “Restaurant Impossible” TV star and celebrity chef Robert Irvine.

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday.

Where: Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College.

Details: This culinary competition and trade show, sponsored by the South Carolina Hospital Association’s Working Well Initiative and Sodexo, will emphasize healthier ways to cook tasty and affordable meals. It seeks to celebrate the success of the state’s hospital chefs, who are striving to create delicious, healthy dishes for workers, patients and visitors every day.

Hospital teams: Baptist Easley Hospital, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Georgetown Hospital System, Laurens County Health Care System, Oconee Medical Center, Palmetto Health, Piedmont Medical Center, Providence Hospital, Providence Hospital Northeast, and the Medical University of South Carolina.

Registration fee: $35, includes a light lunch. A limited number of tickets also are available for a pre-event, “Demo Impossible” on Thursday at the Culinary Institute.

Info: Tickets also will be available

at the door.

But the times are a-changing.

“We don’t serve ‘hospital food’ anymore,” says Jeff Lentini, director of food and nutrition at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “The food we serve is fit for any restaurant in town ... There are very few items here that aren’t fresh.”

Nationally, many say a driving force is the Affordable Care Act, which bases Medicaid reimbursements partly on a “patient satisfaction scores.” And food plays a role in that.

Regional initiatives also are at play. The New York City Health Department started a voluntary “Healthy Hospital Food Initiative,” which drew 35 New York area hospitals.

Closer to home, hospitals have taken on the challenge and are working to change the perception that healthy food doesn’t taste good.

Trident Health System has worked to make food more healthy and healthy food more visible through its H2U, or Health To You, initiative and by making changes through recommendations by the Trident Health Wellness Committee.

Roper St. Francis Healthcare and its food service provider, Morrison Healthcare Food Service, have taken similar steps.

Morrison, which has contracts with 550 hospitals nationwide, has created a “wellness commitment” with strategies covering all the bases, such as retail and patient menus, registers, nutrition labeling and healthier beverages.

The Medical University of South Carolina is among 50 state hospitals that have joined a three-year hospital employee wellness program, S.C. Working Well, which is funded by the Duke Endowment and administered through the South Carolina Hospital Association.

Setting an example

Besides promoting tobacco cessation and physical activity, S.C. Working Well seeks to improve nutrition as part of an overall goal to establish and maintain a “culture of wellness” on hospital campuses, according to Susan Johnson, the director of the office of health promotion at MUSC.

“I think this project is timely and significant for many reasons. Hospitals are natural leaders in prevention and we have resources available to help our own employees and community members lead healthier lives and avoid unnecessary illness and health care costs,” says Johnson.

Johnson, who spearheaded MUSC’s Urban Farm, says that a key component of making healthy choices is eating fresh, local food, which should be the norm.

Healthy competition

Spotlighting that effort comes this Friday with the Cooking Well Invitational, a one-day culinary competition and trade show at the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College.

The event, which costs $35 to attend and includes a light lunch, will feature celebrity chef and “Restaurant Impossible” star Robert Irvine.

The invitational will celebrate the success of South Carolina’s hospital chefs from 10 different “Gold Apple” award-winning hospitals.

They are MUSC, Baptist Easley Hospital, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Georgetown Hospital System, Laurens County Health Care System, Oconee Medical Center, Palmetto Health, Piedmont Medical Center, Providence Hospital and Providence Hospital Northeast.

The chefs will demonstrate how to convert recipes into healthier versions without sacrificing taste. Professional chefs will judge the dishes.

Sodexo & MUSC

Johnson says MUSC has benefited from having a closer relationship with its food service provider, Sodexo, which is the title sponsor of the Cooking Well Invitational and a partner in MUSC’s Urban Farm.

Among the initiatives that Sodexo and MUSC have undertaken together include the implementation of a “Wellness and You” program at MUSC, which allows customers to choose healthier options in areas of calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol.

Johnson says equipping food service employees with nutrition knowledge is another vital component of the Wellness and You program.

Employees became “Wellness Certified” via live and online trainings.

“The trick is to keep the momentum going, though. We conduct quarterly audits of the food services to make sure that we sustain this so that we didn’t just do this one time and that it would fall off.”

Johnson says another, long-held misconception that MUSC and Sodexo have been working to change is the idea that healthy food tastes bad.

“Hospital food has always gotten a bad reputation for not only being unhealthy, but tasting bad, just like school cafeteria food,” says Johnson.

“It’s a tough balance when you are serving food in an institutional setting for large numbers of patients as well as visitors, employees and, in our case, students in terms of serving what is going to satisfy the consumer, the organizational expectations and the food service provider who is primarily concerned with their profit margin.”

Fresh, local produce also is available through weekly farmers markets held on campus as well as delivery service of locally sourced food and produce through Community-Supported Agriculture programs.

The MUSC Urban Farm provides opportunities for learning about the connection between food and health.

And vending machines offering only all-natural, organic and preservative-free items have been installed in several buildings on campus. Existing vending machines feature a system to identify healthy choices.

A five-cent surcharge has been added to unhealthy items, with proceeds benefiting the MUSC Heart Health pediatric weight management program.

Covering bases

Roper St. Francis Healthcare has taken a similar approach to encouraging healthy food choices.

Jeff Lentini, the director of food and nutrition services at Roper St. Francis, says 60 percent of food in all vending machines is considered healthy. The hospital also eliminated an employee discount for sugary drinks, and the cafeteria offers a baked version of each fried entree.

Since April, Roper’s food service provider, Morrison Healthcare Food Service, has been using its “Great Living” patient menu. It increases dietary fiber by 20 percent through the use of whole-wheat products, decreases sodium by 50 percent through use of herbs and spices instead of salt, and decreases total and saturated fat by using cooking techniques such as steaming and dry roasting.

“Roper St. Francis menus are built to eliminate food-related health concerns by modeling good nutrition,” says Lentini. “The change in diet teaches patients what they should be eating at home.”

He adds that Roper is also taking part in Morrison’s sweeping wellness commitment for the health care setting over the next three years.


Efforts to change the culture at Trident’s hospitals started three years ago with similar initiatives, according to Catherine Grych, a dietitian and director of Trident’s H2U program.

Sodexo, also the food service provider for Trident, started labeling healthy menu options with the icons for foods that meet certain standards for fat, cholesterol, sodium and portion size, says Grych.

Grych adds that the Trident Health Wellness Committee, composed of staff from different health disciplines, have worked on making healthy food options the easier choice, such as placing them at more convenient locations.