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Walter Reed serves healthier food to those who served

Walter Reed serves healthier food to those who served

Inside the Bethesda, Md., complex, Café 8901 and its grab-and-go Express operation serve active duty, reservists, veterans, hospital staff and visitors 19 hours a day (from 0:600 to 0:100 in military time).

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) is the largest military medical campus in the country, mostly serving active-duty military and their families. For the past 15 years or so, the foodservice operation at WRNMMC has been part of a healthcare foodservice revolution that’s still gaining momentum.

During the Second Persian Gulf War in the early 2000s, a chef from the hotel world started his service with WRNMMC and furthered that mission. Ted Stolk, now senior foodservice supervisor, started as a contractor and was instrumental in a time when the organization’s foodservice focus was shifting from government-issue efficiency to from-scratch, nourishing food.

“Let me say I was in the right place at the right time,” Stolk says. “Many hospitals and long-term care facilities have pulled chefs from hotels and restaurants to create menus and run their kitchens. There were many people who knew something had to change. It was—and still is—a collaborative effort to slowly and steadily work this change. What I love is that nobody rests on his or her laurels. We push each other to get better every day.”

MEANING OF SERVICE: “Serving veterans is an honor,” says Ted Stolk, senior foodservice supervisor at Walter Reed. “And that is the sentiment of all staff. When people get injured serving their country or after years of service they need medical or emotional care, we need to be there to serve them.”

The current menu-development framework for Café 8901 is contemporary nutrition at its best: lean proteins, lots of veggies and whole grains rather than processed white flour. Vegetables are cut in the kitchen, stocks are housemade, brown rice and whole-wheat tortilla shells are easy choices and grains are found in many menu items to boost protein. “Anything fresh is a good point to start,” Stolk says.

As healthcare dining as an industry has turned on the spotlight on food’s role in wellness, the foodservice team has been working closely with the dietetics branch in order to boost the wellness-food link with projects like Fit ‘n Flavorful, a showcase of power-packed, chef-and-dietitian-designed items like grain bowls including lean proteins and lots of veggies.

The fall menu has included pho bowls, hot and sour salmon soba noodles and pumpkin and black bean soup. The culinary team is planning the winter menu now, and Stolk anticipates adding nutrient-rich seasonal ingredients like sweet potatoes.

HEALING POWER OF FOOD: Walter Reed dietitians and foodservice team sees good food as part of the healing process.

Carl Barnes, MS, RD, CPT, deputy of food operations at WRNMMC, sees the challenges of hospital foodservice as labor and cost, which he says, “will always be limiting factors to being able to focus on high quality, nutritious cooking.”

Barnes has found that buy-in from top-level management is critical, through chefs and dietitians acting as advocates for the value of healthy food, especially to a hospital system.

“It’s more than simply the financial cost of hospital foodservice,” Barnes says. “When food is appropriately recognized as part of healing and healthcare, then it is about more than just cost; it becomes an investment in healthcare outcomes.”

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