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Three Hawaii hospitals transition to scratch cooking

The facilities are eliminating waste, training staff, streamlining their menus—and saving money.

Judy Donovan, regional director of marketing and strategic planning for Kona Community Hospital on the island of Hawai’i, says the heart of the 94-bed facility is its cafeteria, Ginger Café.

When the hospital launched a total wellness campaign, food improvements were at the top of the list.

“We’re a tight-knit place. Everything here is driven by community,” Donovan explains. “We’re trying to engage employees…to make it a better place to work. And a better place to eat.”

Their central goal was to shift from serving prepared foods to a full scratch-cooking operation for the 60 patient meals and 120 lunches they prepare each day.

To help them make the change, the hospital, which is part of Hawaii Health Systems Corp., hired Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners. The organization’s founder, Greg Christian, has worked in noncommercial food and the improvement of food systems for 40 years.


According to Christian, there’s nothing worse for “institutional” food than an expansive menu.

“Variety used to work but it’s totally the enemy of a sustainable, profitable, fabulous food kitchen.”

local_produce_KCH_5.pngHe also insists that big institutions, such as schools, hospitals and museums, can serve quality meals without breaking the bank.

He reports that organizations often overestimate how many ingredients they’ll need and then feel obligated to find the cheapest possible price in order to stay within the budget.

“The cost of ingredients,” he explains, “is completely unrelated to what you spend on food.”

Instead, Christian counsels organizations to spend time assessing what they actually need. He wants them to understand what they’re buying and what people are eating (and not eating) so they can reduce waste streams, including both overproduction and plate waste. They will likely need to buy much less than they have in the past and use the savings to purchase fewer ingredients that are higher quality—and still have funds left over.

Christian walked the staff at Kona Community Hospital through a deep assessment. It included gathering feedback from every group in the facility, including visitors, nurses, doctors, maintenance staff and administrators. They made a complete list of kitchen equipment needs. They reached out to farmers and distributors to find out what produce, fish and other products are available locally.

They also tagged every food item in the storerooms that they planned to stop buying—such as pancake mix and ranch dressing—and developed a schedule for replacing each with a scratch recipe.

Donovan says the foodservice team learned about local products and producers. (They even went on farm tours). They attend weekly trainings to learn new kitchen skills. The staff has adopted a more free-flowing system in the kitchen, an all-hands-on-deck approach that’s more focused on teamwork and less on slotting individual workers into distinct, inflexible roles.

After all of this, the team developed menu items that utilize local produce, such as potatoes, bananas, bok choi, broccoli, lettuces and taro. They tested and sampled items, such as chicken adobo and MaPou tofu vegetable stew, and made changes based on customer feedback.

Kona Community Hospital’s streamlined menus offer just two entrées at a time, one meat-based and one vegan. They also stock a salad bar and offer sandwiches and wraps.


Because they have fewer items to prepare, the staff has more time to put into each of them. That has led to tastier food and higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.

It’s also led to Ginger Café’s 2018 recognition as a Blue Zones Project-approved restaurant, indicating that they prioritize whole, plant-based foods, healthy fats and few added sugars.

On Kauai, two more Hawaii Health Systems hospitals are on a similar journey.

Lance Segawa, regional CEO for the Kauai region, says Greg Christian is helping them remake food delivery at Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital and Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital.

They identified five goals: to deliver healthy meals to patients, support the nutrition staff in skill acquisition and mastery, create a positive food experience for hospital employees, support local producers and expand their services to support the wider community.

They launched the program in December and already their numbers are climbing.

The two hospitals used to sell a combined total of about 40 meals to employees per day. That number has already jumped to 140 daily meals. They also serve housemade meals to patients. (There are, combined, 120 beds.)

They are considering a partnership with a local school to prepare and deliver daily lunches, an effective way to leverage their know-how and enthusiasm.

“I think everyone is encouraged and excited,” Segawa says. “It’s sort of like a new day.”

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