Across the country, there are a growing number of hospitals getting involved with the local food movement. Right here in Northwest Washington, we have plenty of great examples to boast about. Last week PSFN’s Lucy Norris caught up with one such leader: Chef Chris Johnson, Food Services Director at United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley, WA. United General is a great example of a community hospital in a rural area who has shown they can do better, to make better choices for the community they serve. We applaud the efforts of Chef Johnson, his amazing staff, and the hospital administration for their efforts.
Tell us a little about your background and your current position.
As a chef, I have worked mainly in locally owned restaurants. I helped open the old Sweetwater Bistro in Mt. Vernon (The Trumpeter is now in that space). The food scene has really changed around here. I remember walking over to the Mt Vernon Farmers Market in the early days. It was pretty sad in the beginning but nowadays there’s an awesome variety of foods and so many more food producers there. I’ve also taught at the Skagit Valley College. I still work part-time at the La Connor Brewing Co. It’s a really great time to live here and cook for a living.
I remember one instructor telling his students about the importance of buying from local farms. He didn’t preach about it, but you could tell he was passionate. He was sourcing local thirty years ago-when a chef had to go out of the way to buy local. Now, there are resources to help anyone who is the slightest bit interested. There’s no excuse not to buy local.
I’m now the Director of Food Service for United General Hospital responsible for inpatient meals as well as the cafeteria, called Coho Café. I supervise 13 full time employees including a registered dietician (who is smarter than me), and some really amazing cooks and dishwashers. It’s a great group of people.
Institutional food gets a bad wrap, and rightly so. So much of the ready-to-eat foods are highly processed. This food has made people sick over time and too many of those people end up in our hospital because of poor diet. United General is a community hospital in a rural area and we have a responsibility to do better, to make better choices for the community we serve. Skagit Valley is the perfect place to start something like this (Skagit WholeSale Market and Puget Sound Food Network). There are a huge variety of crops here and people want to eat it. We’re pretty lucky.
When I got here, the staff was not cooking from scratch. Food was already prepared, so all they had to do was heat it and serve. Training is an ongoing process. For example, golden beets aren’t that fancy, but the cooks didn’t really know what to do with them. Still, they are always open to trying new things. Everyday is a chance to learn something new and it keeps our work interesting. We all work well together.
It’s a small hospital so we serve about thirty-five inpatient meals per day. About a hundred and fifty people visit the cafeteria. The cashiers tell me that new people are coming for lunch these days– the cashiers have never seen some of these visitors before. People tell me they like the food a lot. I also talk to people about what we’re doing with buying local food. We’ve got the support from administration.
How long have you been sourcing local food for this kitchen?
It started last year. We bought two CSA shares from Hedlin Farm last year. Every Friday was like Christmas. That was the day boxes were delivered.
This year we got more serious with buying local products. I started getting more products from Hedlin and reached out to Sakuma for berries. I also work with Taylor Shellfish and have made some new contacts through the Skagit WholeSale Market. (Editors note: Chef Johnson is a new PSFN member!)
We’re taking baby steps integrating local food into inpatient meals. Right now, Sakuma berries are served to patients twice a week. Hedlin’s lettuce mix is also served. We slice Hedlin’s tomatoes with sandwiches when we have them. Tasteless softballs we get from the distributor do not compare to delicious and ripe, local tomatoes.
So what’s going on in the cafeteria these days?
The Coho Café offers specials throughout the week that include local products. This is the inaugural “Farm Fresh Friday” and we are having Taylor Shellfish Farm clams sauteed w/Skagit River Ranch Sweet Italian Sausage and Hedlin Farm Fennel. For those who prefer meatless, we have the sausage-free version made with Twin Sisters mushrooms. We’ll also have Ralph’s Greenhouse Glazed Carrots, and whatever else I can find to cook up!
The menu for next week includes Taco Day- it’s not gourmet but people love it. I just bought some organic ground beef from Skagit River Ranch at the Skagit WholeSale Market this week. I am also trying their organic ground pork that I’ll combine to create my own seasoned taco filling. I’m also making spinach lasagna made with Ralph’s Greenhouse spinach and San Juan Island Pasta Co noodles. There will be baked San Juan Island Pasta Co rigatoni and Twin Sisters Mushrooms. I just bought some Skagit Fresh sparkling beverage and it sold out. I want to get more.
A recent visitor told me, “I never thought to come to a hospital for steamed clams!” If I can sell this food in a small hospital in Sedro Woolley, any business around here can and should do it. As soon as you start putting local on your menu and letting people know — people will go crazy, and flock to it.
The Skagit WholeSale Market launched just three weeks ago in Mt. Vernon. You came the first day and every market day since. Tell me about your experiences so far. How did you find out about it?
Actually, Celeste at Sakuma Bros told me about it. I had called to place an order and she told me to meet her there to collect my order. I didn’t really have any expectations. But while I was there, I met other food producers. I order from Hedlin and Sakuma every week anyway, so now I can pick up stuff at the market now. Since coming to the market, I have orders with Ralph’s, San Juan Island Pasta Co, Twin Sisters, and Skagit River Ranch. I also found out that Samish Bay Cheese does more than the hard cheeses like gouda. I had no idea they also do fresh cheese and yogurt, too! It was also great to see Don from Nerka SeaFrozen Salmon this week. I used to buy from him when I was at the Sweetwater Bistro. It’s excellent quality fish!
The Skagit WholeSale Market and PSFN are both awesome! The Market is so refreshing because you can have a face-to-face relationship with the people who grow your food, versus clicking a button in an ordering program.
There is a popular belief that local food is just too expensive for institutional budgets. So how do you do it?
Actually last year when we started sourcing local food, we came under budget. So this year, they gave us less budget because apparently they think we don’t need it. Nah, we’re OK. Since participating in the Skagit WholeSale Market, I haven’t compared the invoices with my regular line distributor, but I’m pretty sure we’re spending less this year. The farmers have been willing to work with me on invoicing. As a hospital employee, I can’t just write a check. On Thursdays when I come back with my products, I sit down at my desk and sign off on the invoices. Then I walk them straight down to Finance. I do this as quickly as possible so the producer doesn’t have to wait long to get paid. It’s a leap of faith for small farmers but that trust grows when you do what you say you are going to do.
I look at the cost of sourcing local from a different angle. For ready-to-eat foods, I was paying for labor twice. Now I pay once for labor- my co-workers seem to like what we’re doing and we’re attracting more business. Sourcing local makes perfect sense.
(Editor’s Note: Created by Chef Johnson and inspired by local, seasonal bounty, “Farm Fresh Friday” at Coho Café happens Fridays from 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Come and enjoy menu items made with fresh produce from local farms, including fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and more. Affordable, healthy, and delicious! It will change the way you think about hospital food! For more information, please call (360) 707-4238. United General Hospital is located at 2000 Hospital Drive • Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284. Visit www.unitedgeneral.org.)