In the hierarchy of dreaded dinners, hospital food typically ranks somewhere around high-school cafeteria's mystery meat and the plastic trays served on airplanes.
But a new initiative by Stanford Hospital & Clinics and local chef Jesse Cool looks to change all that. Cool, who has been preaching the gospel of local organic food for the past three decades, is teaming up with Stanford to bring fresh, seasonal meals to hospital patients.
Her new program, dubbed Farm Fresh, gives patients the option of choosing a meal created from seasonal ingredients picked from within a 200-mile radius of the medical center. Stanford slowly rolled out the program to about 30 patients in the past two weeks and officially unveiled it to the public at a Monday gala featuring doctors, nurses and hospital executives slurping spoonfuls of soup and chewing samples of baked stuffed apples topped with honey-yogurt sauce.
Cool, whose current ventures include Flea Street Café in Menlo Park and the Cool Café at Stanford's Cantor Art Center, said the idea for the new program sprouted from a conversation she had in her restaurant with Dr. Robert Robbins, who chairs Stanford's Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery. Cool pitched the idea to Roberts, who then set up a meeting between herself and Martha Marsh, the hospital's CEO.
On Monday, Marsh said she was thrilled to partner up with Cool on providing patients with food that can please, heal and comfort all at once. Patients could request a made-from-scratch chicken soup on any day of the week or could opt for a different, seasonal soup. These include cream of spinach soup, carrot ginger soup with curry, roasted tomato soup with herbs, potato leek soup and corn with basil and smoked cheddar soup.
To get their daily dose of protein, patients can choose between grass-feed-beef meatballs, poached organic chicken or smoked tofu. A patient's soup of choice could be poured into a bowl around the protein offering. Local bread and butter would complement the meal.
Cool acknowledged that feeding people in a hospital setting is, in many ways, more challenging than serving meals to restaurant patrons. But Cool said she was confident the new program would not only be nutritionally beneficial but also cost effective.
"It is our hope that because we're offering a meal that is veggie-based with just a small amount of protein and very seasonable food -- the hope is it actually won't be much more expensive," Cool said.
Right now, the Fresh Farm station comprises a small nook in a giant kitchen overseen by the hospital's Executive Chef Beni Velazquez. But over time, as local, organic food become more popular and accepted, the program could grow and influence the hospital's other offerings, Velazquez said.
Velazquez, a veteran restaurateur who joined the Stanford Hospital kitchen in December, has already led the hospital away from frozen meals and toward fresh California-grown produce. Many of his regular meals already use organic ingredients, he said. The Farm Fresh program is the first to use these products exclusively.
"It's from the farm, to us, straight to the patient," Velazquez said. "The food is as fresh as possible and it gets right to you as soon as we can get it to you."
Shelly Hebert, Stanford Hospital's executive director of public affairs, noted that the name Farm Fresh has a particular resonance in Stanford, a school born out of a rich farm heritage. Hebert noted that Stanford is affectionately known as "The Farm." The name of the new program, in a sense, harkens back to a time when alfalfa fields, corn stalks and orchards dominated the landscape around the verdant campus.
Now, Cool hopes to make fresh, local produce synonymous with Stanford yet again. In the coming months, she and Velazquez plan to expand the nascent program and adjust it based on feedback from patients. Both said they hope the new program will change people's innate suspicion of "hospital food."
"Most people wouldn't not refer to what we're doing as 'hospital food,'" Cool said. "But that's what we're doing here at Stanford."