It’s called Naked Chicken and it is at the center of a growing relationship between the dining program at the Southside Regional Medical Center (SRMC) in Petersburg, Va., and HHS, the contract foodservice firm that operates it, and Joyce Farms, a regional producer of heritage and all-natural protein products like chicken and other poultry, but also beef, pork, bison and rabbit.
Joyce Farms operates in accordance with the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5-step Animal Welfare Program through which all the animals raised on the farm are grown without antibiotics, hormones or growth stimulants, and without confinement, which benefits both their health and happiness and contributes to the superior culinary qualities of the product the company markets, the organization says. Joyce is also converting its farms to regenerative agriculture, defined as the holistic approach to land management that contributes to generating and building soil fertility, increasing biodiversity and ecosystem health, lowering carbon emissions, and increasing water percolation and clean water runoff.
Last year, HHS had pledged to foster responsible stewardship and animal welfare by partnering with organizations that are equally committed to the 5-Step Animal Welfare Standards developed by GAP. It has committed to a goal of sourcing only poultry certified by GAP by 2024, and the partnership with Joyce Farms serves as a significant stepping stone in that direction.
The relationship began a little more than a year ago when HHS at SRMC was looking to enhance its catering offerings and a vendor rep mentioned Joyce.
“I remember that when he first mentioned the product, he called it ‘naked chicken,’ and it really struck a chord with me,” recalls Peter Tseng, HHS executive chef at SRMC. “I didn’t know much about it, but the more we learned about it the more interested we became in Joyce Farms.”
Tseng terms Joyce’s Naked Chicken products the “gold standard for what poultry should be.” He was also impressed by the farm’s expansive acreage per animal, “which coincides with HHS values on the humane treatment of animals and puts it into real-world practice.”
Initially, the Naked Chicken product was used only in catering, “but then it grew larger and larger” and is now also used regularly in the action station in the medical center cafeteria, where it commands a more premium price point.
“We also added it on to what we call out ‘stork menu,’ the celebratory meal we serve after a new mother gives birth,” Tseng adds.
The action station emphasizes ingredients that are seasonal and locally available. For example, Joyce Farms Naked Chickens may be roasted whole, then pulled right in front of customers and served on a salad or in a flatbread accompanied with locally sourced produce items.
In addition to whole chickens and specific cuts such as breasts and thighs, SRMC also purchases random and mis-cut pieces from Joyce Farms for use in dishes where it is served cut or chopped up. It had also used some Joyce Farms turkey around the holidays, but for the most part, chicken is the main Joyce Farms product being used by HHS.
Plans, however, call for expanding the relationship beyond the 300-bed SRMC hospital facility to other, much smaller HHS operated sites.
“Joyce Farms and HHS have been working very closely through their distributors to get contract pricing so we can use [Joyce Farms products] more and more on our patient menus,” Tseng explains. “Our use is kind of small right now,” he admits, “but our intent is to grow it to all of our accounts for their patient menus. Right now, we’re kind of paving the way for the company [HHS] here at Southside Regional and a lot of the benchmarks we’re hitting right now are going to be setting standards for the rest of our accounts to follow.”
Joyce Farms is headquartered in North Carolina but operates a branch in Virginia, well within the 250-mile radius that defines “local” for HHS at SRMC. In addition, local procurement at the facility encompasses produce suppliers that tap the state’s rich fruit and vegetable bounty.
“We work with two different produce vendors to make sure a lot of the fresh produce we buy comes from local sources,” Tseng says, “which is very important for us because it also helps promote local farmers and small businesses.”
Signage informs customers about the presence of local products and their benefits as well as the commitment of SRMC and HHS to things like sustainable seafood (HHS uses only sustainably sourced seafood products) and cage-free eggs.
“I have a sign that’s a copy-and-paste from the Joyce Farms website that is put up in the cafeteria when we run items with Joyce Farms chicken so our customers know what they are getting and the value that’s behind the dollar on the price,” Tseng observes.
“Our products are a perfect fit for healthcare foodservice because they are not only healthier, but offer full flavor for a truly memorable eating experience,” offers Joyce Farms Owner Ron Joyce. “In many ways, ‘healthy food’ has gotten a bad reputation for being bland and flavorless, but it doesn’t have to be. By selecting the best heritage breeds of animals that thrive in pastures, raising them humanely on small family farms, and using regenerative agriculture methods, we are able to produce meat and poultry that is full of flavor and nutrient dense.”