On Wednesdays, visitors and staff at UC Davis Health cafés line up at the rotisserie station for harissa-spiced salmon. The hospital serves 500 pounds of the fish every week. Chef Santana Diaz never expected it to be so popular.
Even with those numbers, he was able to work out a way to source the fish sustainably. The salmon comes from Campbell River, British Columbia, rated a “Good Alternative” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
Purchasing decisions such as this one helped earn the hospital a Smart Catch designation by the James Beard Foundation. The title indicates that a site meets high standards for fish and seafood sourcing. To qualify, applicants keep detailed records and comply with multiple assessments over a 10-month period. Among other requirements, they must avoid purchasing species that are listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species and keep fish and seafood products on Seafood Watch’s “Avoid” list to a minimum.
Diaz, who joined UC Davis Health as executive chef 16 months ago, is proud of the achievement. But he hardly considers their work finished. He continues to look for ways to make their fish program even more sustainable.
Though the salmon is incredibly popular, they’re in the process of replacing it with local sturgeon and steelhead trout grown by Passmore Ranch, a sustainable fish farm and caviar producer located just 17 miles from campus.
“If we look at freshwater fish, we’re definitely looking at something that’s more sustainable than [sourcing from] our oceans,” Diaz says, noting that it’s also a way to build relationships with local producers. “We’re collaborating with our farmers and asking them, ‘What works for you?’”
Finding sustainable solutions for such a large population is no small task. With 630 beds, the hospital is the largest in the Sacramento area and operates one of the largest production kitchens in the city.
They serve an average of 1,700 patient meals and up to 4,000 retail meals per day and through their catering program, another 800 to 1,000. The food and nutrition services department alone employs 230 people.
Wendi Vela, who oversees the department, says they created an executive chef position to take up the challenge of creating a robust farm-to-fork program. And it’s working.
When Diaz came on board, he started reaching out to local purveyors and pricing out options to see how many items on the enormous purchasing list could be replaced with local, sustainable items.
When he arrived, 16% of all ingredients were sourced sustainably. Today, it’s 37%. They project that it will top 40% by the end of this fiscal year.
“Our hope is to show that large institutional purchasing can shift to more sustainable food procurement practices,” Diaz says, “and even, possibly, yield a better food sourcing practice for our environment.”
The hospital’s patient menu includes mindfully sourced center-of-plate entrées such as short rib tacos and lemon cream chicken. As part of a sustainable fish program, they added lemon herb catfish, sourced from Passmore Ranch. They also serve fried catfish bites once a week at the retail rotisserie station.
Diaz notes that these options round out the menu, support healthier oceans and waterways and contribute to nearby economies. But they also help the food and nutrition department meet its environmental stewardship goals—sometimes in ways they didn’t anticipate.
When they replaced a land-based meat entrée with the salmon dish, for instance, they discovered that they had inadvertently reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 7%.
Their dedication to sustainability is evident throughout the program. Diaz sources grass-fed beef from a nearby producer. Eighty percent of their produce comes from local growers. The lamb served alongside the salmon on Wednesdays comes from a California ranch.
Ultimately, they want to offer food that checks all the boxes. Diaz and Vela are the first to admit that hospital food doesn’t have the best reputation. They want to shatter the stigma.
“We’re really working to transform the perception of patient food and enhance the quality of food,” Vela says. “We want to make sure that it’s healthy, it looks good, it tastes good and it’s sustainably sourced.”
For the future, Diaz is looking to curb waste by moving from batch cooking to a made-to-order model and to find ways to source even more local ingredients.
Black bass will likely be on the menu soon. And maybe even scallops from nearby Suhn Farms.
“Can we get scallops on a hospital menu?” Diaz asks. “I always say, ‘why not?’”