With one segment—healthcare—overwhelmed by demand and another—universities—operating at less than full capacity, Sodexo’s Boston-area management recently saw an opportunity to pivot and share resources during a spike in coronavirus cases.
Brandeis University’s dining services department stepped up to provide hospitals grab-and-go retail items to feed doctors, nurses and administrative staff. That, in turn, allowed the hospitals’ own dining services to concentrate their efforts on feeding an overload of patients.
During the first week, in Late March, the Brandeis team prepared about 500 items, including sandwiches, fruit cups, yogurt parfaits, salads and other packaged meals and snacks, and delivered them to two hospitals. By mid-April, at the peak of the outbreak, Brandeis was delivering three days a week to 10 hospitals, with 4,800 menu items each week. A team of about 10 participated in production, and dining services staff handled deliveries.
The idea of a grab-and-go satellite production kitchen, first floated in mid-March, took less than two weeks to take shape. Adapting an all-you-can-eat dining hall to a retail production facility took some outside-the-box thinking, says Andy Allen, dining services general manager at Brandeis.
Allen says some hospitals were providing free food to staff, while others weren’t, but Brandeis (or Sodexo) was getting reimbursed. “We’re just transferring the cost of the food to the hospitals, and each hospital is responsible,” he explains.
Considerations that needed to be addressed for the program included USDA labeling requirements, HACCP controls, packaging and delivery logistics.
Something as simple as a sandwich involves multiple steps. “You’ve got to slice the meat, chill the meat, then assemble the sandwich, chill it, wrap it for retail sale, label it with all the pertinent information—when and where it was produced, the nutritional breakdown—chill it again, pack it into a shipping container, then get it onto a refrigerated truck,” Allen says.
To avoid contamination, all of the Brandeis delivery personnel wore masks, and none of them entered hospitals during delivery. Hospital staff met them at the loading docks.
Throughout the production and delivery process, HACCP control managers sampled product as well. And a dietitian verified that all the nutritional labeling was accurate.
Since the items produced veered from the typical menu served to Brandeis students, Sodexo’s existing Simply to Go program provided a valuable trove of recipes, packaging and labeling guidelines provided a valuable resource. “It was easy to piece together the menu because we already had the specs, portions and pictures,” says Rose Forrest, a regional executive chef for Sodexo who was involved in setting up production. The menu changed each week.
Aside from switching to a completely new menu, sourcing delivery equipment and supplies has been a challenge for the team.
Transportation was relatively simple: Brandeis borrowed a refrigerated truck from another Sodexo college account in the Northeast. Allen, who had run a college commissary in a previous job, knew shipping containers would be needed to move the food, and he ordered them just in time, right before a stay-at-home order was invoked for the state. Distributors had to find vendors for some of the grab-and-go menu items. And stocking the right packaging supplies meant reaching out to other local Sodexo locations—for tops that would fit yogurt parfaits, for example. “Those little pieces that you would normally take for granted you could just get and never had an issue with before—now you couldn’t,” Forrest says.
Allen says Brandeis deserves a fair amount of credit for the program. “It’s very much a socially active community and they were looking for a way to participate in helping the greater Boston community,” he says. “When they were approached about using the space, they were thrilled to participate.” Members of the university community have volunteered to help with the effort, and some Brandeis students have been hired to help with assembly.
He also says brainstorming and cooperation with other chefs and managers in the Boston area helped Brandeis go from zero to 100 quickly. “Without their cooperation, it would have been far more difficult to make this happen,” he says.
The Brandeis experience is a first for Sodexo, and Forrest says there are plans to share best practices with other schools looking for a way to support essential workers. “The model we have here can be transferred to other accounts. We can provide an ordering and purchasing guide and provide our recipes so it can be easily transferred elsewhere,” she says.
The demand from Boston-area hospitals has subsided, with five remaining facilities receiving deliveries from Brandeis as of May 13. Allen predicts the deliveries won’t be needed by the end of May.
“Overall, to be able to help healthcare in any shape or form is really what it’s about,” Allen says.