Like most facilities of its kind in the United States, the campuses of healthcare services firm UnitedHealth Group (UHG) in Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada and North Carolina have been mostly shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak, idling the onsite dining operations managed by the Eurest unit of Compass Group North America. However, those foodservice facilities have found another, socially beneficial use as UHG and Compass have put them to the service of agencies like first responders, shelters and food banks, and that has allowed the foodservice staff to keep working while also providing a social benefit during the crisis.
Around the country, UHG and Compass are providing some 73,000 meals a week, which are picked up five days a week by the agency partners (the Friday batch generally includes enough to cover the weekend). The food is packed in various ways, from individually packaged breakfasts and lunches to family packs for community meals at YMCA sites and bulk meals for shelters. Recipients also include nursing homes and first responders. Everything is sent out cold and rethermed as needed at the end site.
The meals conform as much as possible to UHG’s “Stride” health and wellness guidelines that govern what is served in its dining outlets to employees.
Photo credit: Compass Group
Photo: Individually wrapped sandwiches await distribution at a UnitedHealth kitchen.
“We’re not just looking to distribute as many meals as possible, but working with Compass, we’ve really developed menus that are both healthy and delicious,” notes Brett Edelson, UHG’s CEO for its Minnesota regional operations. “I think that’s an important part of this because sometimes when these things happen, in trying to address food insecurity some things are lost, but I think Compass and UHG have done a really nice job of maintaining the [commitment] to fresh and healthy.”
“As an example, we’re using the whole-grain muffin batter we use in our Strive program for some 4,000 boxed breakfast meals a day,” notes Fred Shembri, vice president of operations for Compass’ operations with UHG in Minnesota, while the boxed lunches incorporate components like whole fruit and whole-grain bread.
“We’re not taking shortcuts, we’re using the same criteria from a calorie/fat/sodium [perspective] in these meals as when we’re producing them [for employee meals],” he emphasizes. “We’re not taking the stance that we can go backwards in our commitment to UHG, regardless of whether it’s for their own employees or for the community.”
UHG already had pre-existing relationships with a number of these partner agencies, says Edelson. “Second Harvest is one we partner with around the country on food-insecurity initiatives,” he notes. “Same thing with Loaves & Fishes, YMCA and some others.”
The initiative has also allowed Compass employees at UHG facilities who wished to do so to keep on working. UHG also has kept on the employees of cleaning/maintenance services provider ABM.
As for its own staff, UHG has been complying with the work-from-home regulations of the different states where it operates, though some employees do come to the company facilities.
“As a healthcare organization, some of our roles are deemed essential, so we do have quite a few frontline healthcare workers who are obviously essential, and some of our back-office employees who need to support from an office setting are also working onsite,” Edelson explains. To serve those employees, the Compass kitchens are producing grab-and-go meals along with the food being sent out.
The turnaround to the new service model was fairly quick, according to Shembri.
“We were actually told on a Wednesday that they were thinking of doing this program, and from then to, literally, the next Monday when we launched, we worked on procurement, on distancing strategies, PPE strategy and really mapping out the kitchen with tape and educating our associates on the team that was going to partake in this program. It really was a quick turnaround.”
Meanwhile, the team worked with vendors to create menus that could use up the perishable product that they were left with when the foodservice channel basically stopped dead with the coronavirus shutdowns.
“The first week was pretty interesting,” Shembri notes. “We had asparagus, white asparagus, things they were going to have to move quickly or donate so they were able to give us very reasonable pricing. It was definitely unique how we did that over the first two weeks.”
The menus also emphasized utilizing the blast chillers on hand and items that could stand up to transport without losing quality.