Like any good healthcare operator, Ohio Living had a contingency plan ready when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We’ve been training for this type of thing for a long time, whether we knew it or not,” observed John Anderson, division director of culinary and nutrition services for the Columbus-based group of a dozen continuing care retirement communities.
Last spring, when the pandemic became apparent, “we really had to change and turn the ship around pretty quickly,” he adds. “Our company is good at doing this because of our size and the way we are structured.” Anderson heads up the 12 campus-level teams of dining directors and chefs, who feed the assisted living and long-term care residents.
Ohio Living properties normally follow a full-service dining model, but last spring that shifted to delivery almost overnight. “We’ve always focused on having people come to the dining room, so this goes against everything we’ve pushed for years, but it was necessary,” Anderson says.
While meal delivery might seem easier than restaurant-style dining, the switch wasn’t without challenges. Some staff had to be retrained, so dishwashers and servers might be drafted into packaging or delivering food safety, for instance. Disposables and trays had to be sourced. Carts to transport meals were borrowed from vendors. Menus were also streamlined from an a la carte offering to fewer choices, with an emphasis on comfort foods to compensate for the diminished selection. Some staff members ended up COVID-positive and had to quarantine, which strained the team.
Photo: Dining rooms, when open, have limited capacity. Residents who wish to dine with others are scheduled on designated days to spread out the population.
As Ohio’s rules about dining rooms relaxed, the facilities started welcoming residents back to dining rooms, but at a reduced capacity. “At most campuses, the directors created a schedule, assigning the dining room to different floors on different days,” Anderson says. Many residents have opted to continue with delivery, and some Ohio Living properties allow residents to pick up meals on their own. With the recent surge in COVID cases the mix of service models has fluctuated.
Communication has been an important tool in Ohio Living’s approach, Anderson says. Since early in the pandemic, directors have logged into weekly virtual meetings to share best practices and updates. Anderson provides news and guidance from the CDC, the state restaurant association, the Senior Dining Association and vendors.
Keeping the staff engaged during the pandemic has been a priority as well. In addition to offering employees boxed lunches so they can socially distance, Ohio Living has continued its tradition of culinary competitions—taking them virtual this year. Working with food vendors, the system pitted chefs against each other, giving them a chance to flex their culinary skills beyond the limited menus of meals to go.
Getting meals to residents solves one problem—keeping residents safe—but it doesn’t exactly encourage socialization for residents. Ohio Living communities took steps to maintain a human connection where possible.
Themed dinners aren’t practical these days, but during the warmer months some campuses scheduled socially distanced outdoor barbecues. The culinary teams also added a personal touch to deliveries. Special treats—goodie bags with housemade chocolates, Thanksgiving leftovers—helped bring some sense of normalcy to residents. And staffs wrote messages on takeout containers.
Prohibitions on visits by friends and family members raised another issue: how isolated residents would obtain snacks, favorite foods and other essential items that visitors would normally provide. The dining services team took on that task, taking orders and stocking mini-markets for campuses that had them. Items would be added to vendor orders, and “if we couldn’t get it with our delivery, someone would go out and get it,” Anderson says. That practice is likely to continue post-pandemic.
Delivery is another COVID strategy that he expects to continue.
“When a resident or family is making a decision about a CCRC, typically they would have lunch in the dining room,” Anderson says. “We’ll continue to do that, but if I was making a decision, I would want to see what a delivered meal looks like. It might only need to be for one day, but it might be for nine months, and how good does it look and taste? I think we’ll be evaluated more on that.”
Given that, he says, it will be important to have the right equipment and supplies, and a space in the kitchen purpose-built for efficiently preparing and packaging delivered meals.
Creative collaboration and preparation have kept Ohio Living’s communities going during the past nine months. “I’m really proud of the way our dining directors and team have handled things,” he says.