Union Hospital dishes up organic, local eats
— A hospital cafeteria may be an unlikely place to get a good meal— but Union Hospital does not disappoint.
There is much to like about what’s happening in the culinary arts at the county’s health care facility. And according to Holly Emmons, the hospital’s food service manager, it began with a conversation with a disgruntled patient.
“The CEO of the hospital sent word to have me come and speak to a patient about his concerns,” Emmons said. “He was a farmer on a cardiac diet. He said the greenhouse tomatoes were horrible and that he wanted fresh sausage.”
Emmons left that meeting and rushed to the farmers market, where she procured fresh tomatoes and prepared the man a healthy meal. Sometime after his discharge, satisfied with the care he had received, he returned to the hospital with cantaloupes he had grown at his farm.
“I thought, ‘ Why can’t we buy food like this?’ Yes, it’s more work, but we have a dedicated production staff,” she said.
Since that time, Emmons, who has been in food service her “whole life,” has set a strategic goal of reducing the amount of processed food being served in the hospital. Adhering to an
organic and sustainable food philosophy, she and the staff practice environmental nutrition, which she describes as returning to the way it was before industrial agriculture.
“It is sad,” Emmons said. “Our food system is so out of whack. As a health care institution, we should be a forerunner of healthy, institutional foods.”
In keeping with a whole- foods ideology, she purchases local, organic vegetables from Priapi Gardens in Cecilton and Filasky’s Produce in Middleton, Del. Pasture- grazed beef and pork are obtained from Shane Hughes at Liberty Delight Farms in Reisterstown; Kelly McGill from KCC Natural Farms in Forest Hill provides the freerange chicken.
Having a relationship with the farmers allows for conversation regarding seasonal fare, and requests for specific cuts of meat for dishes like fajitas and sweet and sour chicken. It also provides variety and opportunities to try less common vegetables such as kohlrabi and bok choy.
“We are very happy to be providing food to the local hospital for staff, patients and the public,” said Vic Priapi, an organic farmer who harvests and delivers to Union Hospital on the same day.
Noelyn I. De Roxas — the hospital’s culinary supervisor perhaps better known as Chef Ning — explained that they extend the harvest by processing their own foods. During tomato season, they prepare homemade marinara sauce. When corn is at its peak, it is husked, cut and frozen for later use. Emmons added that last season they were purchasing 400 to 500 ears of corn a week. The corn chowder prepared in March was made with last fall’s kernels.
“We are after quality here,” Chef Ning said. “Our flavor is incredible. We have a cook- fromscratch kitchen. We use real potatoes in our mashed potatoes. The meatballs are from scratch.”
What is served to the patients is also available to both the hospital staff and the community in the staff cafeteria and The Union Express coffee shop.
“Our food — across the board — is served to everyone,” said Brenda M. O’Connor, dietician supervisor with the hospital. “People are eating healthy without even knowing it.”
On the morning of my visit, one of the offerings was an omelet made with cage- free eggs, ham, broccoli, onions, mushrooms, and feta cheese, garnished with asparagus and red bell pepper. Cecil College students eat in the cafeteria because they like the pizza and burgers. Employees of local banks and the post office frequent the locale as well.
For Emmons, nutrition goes beyond the patients to the staff and visitors. When placing orders for meat and vegetables, she orders extra to sell to customers. Her philosophy is not simply to serve good food, but to cultivate a healthy lifestyle by encouraging people to buy ethically-sourced and environmentallynutrient food for home use.
“We are the anchor of our community,” Emmons said, recognizing how far the program has come since the visit with the unhappy patient. “That farmer opened up my eyes.”
Inspired Bites is a monthly column on the people and stories behind local food from Denise Marotta Lopes. Contact her with questions and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her online at denisemarottalopes.com.
Union Hospital’s Brenda M. O’Connor, dietician supervisor, Holly Emmons, food service manager, and Noelyn De Roxas, culinary supervisor, show off the hospital’s dining options.
Personal pizzas are a favorite option for some community members who dine in at Union Hospital.