Like many urban hospital systems, Philadelphia’s Jefferson Health faces challenges in fulfilling one of a healthcare provider’s main roles: encouraging healthier lifestyles, especially better eating habits. The 14-hospital system has found some creative ways to address those challenges on several fronts to ensure staff, visitors, patients and Thomas Jefferson University students have healthy choices available at all times.
The most recent innovation, a pilot test of vending machines that dispense eye-catching healthy meals packed in jars, has developed a steady following since its March debut. The four units, from a chef-led local startup called Simply Good Jars, sell fresh meals made with locally sourced ingredients and in-season organic produce and packaged in no-waste reusable plastic jars. Choices include items like Smoked Salmon Salad with baby arugula, cucumber, radish, fennel, scallions, feta cheese, hot-smoked salmon, Israeli couscous and aji-lemon vinaigrette, or local organic yogurt with seasonal fruit compote and vanilla almond granola.
Simply Good Jars choices include vegan, vegetarian and meat-based salads as well as breakfasts and snacks. All meals are under 600 calories, and the menu changes weekly based on the season and preferences at each location. Prices range from $1.89 to $10.95, and the “smart fridges” accept credit and debit cards. A bin next to the units promotes returns of the reusable jars.
After a successful pilot at several Jefferson Health locations, more smart fridges are in the works across the system, says Stephanie Conners, executive vice president and chief operating officer. The main hospital is also the first trial site for a Simply Good Jars healthy beverage fridge, which offers a variety of sustainable and locally sourced options, including cascara (coffee cherry tea), kombucha and Just Water.
While the smart fridges don’t provide a revenue stream for the hospitals, Conners says that wasn’t the goal. “What really drove our decision was the ability to offer healthy choices,” she says. Supporting a local startup was a plus to the partnership. And Simply Good Jars founder and CEO Jared Cannon does give back to the hospitals, pledging 50 cents per returned jar to support Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, a Jefferson Health facility.
Jefferson’s pilot program is the first time the smart fridges have been offered in a hospital setting. Cannon, a chef who took his jarred healthy meal idea to the next level with the vending units, says, “we service every level, from Fortune 500 companies, to law firms, to coworking spaces—and everything in between.”
Conners says food purchased from the machines doesn’t seem to be siphoning business away from Jefferson’s main Atrium cafeteria, satellite cafés and markets, which also provide healthy alternative menu items, but shut down in the evening (an exception, the Atrium, offers express service until 9:30 p.m.). “The reality is, when you have no options at night, these are new sales,” she says.
“Offering Simply Good Jars is another way for us to put our values into action—putting people first, being bold and thinking differently and doing the right thing,” Conners adds.
Another 24/7 solution soon to fortify the army of Simply Good Jars units is Sally the Robot, a machine that quickly prepares customizable salads, yogurt bowls, grain bowls and snacks using robotics and algorithms to dispense precise portions of already-prepped ingredients. With a three-foot-square footprint, it holds ingredients in chilled canisters and can be loaded with enough to dispense 50 to 100 orders. It will be stationed in the main hospital’s atrium dining area. The hospital’s Sally, made by Hayward, Calif.-based Chowbotics, will be the first in the state.
Reaching within, beyond the hospital walls
Jefferson Health’s commitment to healthy dining extends outside the hospitals and into patient rooms as well.
Two years ago, the hospitals debuted Nourish’d, a food truck that specializes in healthy, nutrient-dense lunch fare. It’s typically parked in a plaza near Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and feeds hospital staff, medical school students and faculty and the community. About 70 customers line up daily for items like Southwestern chicken kale salad, black bean burgers, slow-cooked Korean beef tacos and vegetable stir-fries.
The bright yellow truck also serves as a billboard, appearing at Jefferson-sponsored community events, such as community festivals, health walks and screenings. It operates from April until November. Conners says the truck sometimes serves food at these events as well.
Machines represent only one tactic in efforts to boost healthier lifestyles. In 2014, after a community health needs assessment determined that the surrounding neighborhood lacked sources for healthy foods, Jefferson’s Frankford Hospital installed a 2,000-square-foot community garden on the front lawn.
The garden serves not only as a teaching model for how it is possible to source healthy food in an urban setting—by growing your own—it also feeds the neighbors. The garden is tended by hospital staff, volunteers and community groups, and the fruits, vegetables and herbs they grow find their way to families and nonprofit groups that feed the underserved community.
Jefferson’s patients are targeted for healthy meals as well. The hospital system subscribes to the American Heart Association’s Healthy for Life 20 By 20 initiative, which aims to reduce the calories, saturated fat and sodium in meals by 20%, and increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains by 20% by 2020. As part of that, the hospitals’ nutrition staff has introduced more than 200 new plant-based recipes to patient menus, and the hospitals have reduced meat in recipes by about 5%.
Orthodox Jewish patients and their families are the beneficiaries of another recent addition at Jefferson, a shabbat pantry at the Center City campus that is stocked by Bikur Cholim, a local community organization. Orthodox patients and their families have 24/7 access to a private, secure kitchen with food prep equipment and other amenities. Hospitalized patients also can order kosher trays.
Conners says Jefferson Health is considering additional initiatives to promote more healthful eating. “We are consistently looking at healthy food options,” she says. “When we find something that works, we can expand it across the enterprise.”
And that enterprise is considerable. Jefferson Health is Philadelphia’s second largest employer. Between patients, more than 30,000 employees, 8,400 healthcare students, 6,100 physicians and other medical professionals and 4,600 faculty members, Jefferson Health has a lot of appetites to satisfy, not to mention serving the community. By making better food choices easier to find, Jefferson is honoring its commitment to health.