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February 26. 2013 6:11PM

Hospital cafeterias attract Granite State diners


The move toward healthier food in hospital cafeterias often includes a fresh salad bar. (MELANIE PLENDA PHOTO)
Judy Tobin of Keene is in the hospital at least twice a week. She's not sick or visiting ill friends, she's there for the food.

"We heard good things about it and tried the salad bar," said Tobin, talking about Center Court Cafe, the cafeteria at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Keene. "We decided it was the best deal in town. Everything is nice and fresh and done every day, they have imaginative salads - today they had quinoa - they have good coffee and it's reasonable and clean and comfortable."

Tobin said she was a little hesitant to hit the hospital for a hot lunch date at first, since she otherwise had no reason to be there. But now, she said, "It's just like going to a restaurant."

And she's not alone. A growing number of people are taking to hospital cafeterias for a cheap, tasty meal.

"We do have a handful of people come to our cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner who don't have other reasons to be at the hospital," said Rolf Olsen, spokesman for Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont. "I'm told these people come because the prices are very reasonable for a full, hot meal. We get some people every day."

The primary reason people seem to be headed for the hospital lunch counters are the prices, said Fredrick Gerard, director of nutritional services at Cheshire Medical Center. A hot entrée with two sides in Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Keene or Lebanon cafeterias may go for as around $5. And a full salad with chicken is equally affordable.

Part of the reason they can keep those prices so low, Girard said, is because they raise prices slightly on sugary and fatty foods.

"We kind of wanted to price the healthier items a little less than the items that are considered to be unhealthy," Girard said. "We just kind of wanted to take the economics off the table. You hear it all the time that eating healthy is too expensive. Well, we wanted to make the healthy choice the economically wise choice."

And for that money, said Deborah Keane, the registered dietician in charge of food and nutrition services for Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon, a patron is able to get salmon and other healthy food items for $4 as opposed to $15 or $20 at a retail restaurant.

Aside from prices though, the food is good. Really good, fans of the lunch and dinner programs say. It's homemade and made, more and more, from healthy and wholesome ingredients.

"Back in 2008 we got rid of our (deep fryer)," Keane said. "And now my grilled salmon is outselling (what was) my number-one-selling chicken basket."

Gone are the grey mystery meats and over-fried everythings of an earlier era, she said. Instead, patrons of a hospital cafeteria these days are more likely to find more exotic options. For example, it's not uncommon to see a Moroccan stew, mango chutney glazed pork, stuffed portabella mushrooms, a turkey salad with Fuji apple, cranberry and walnut wrap or miso ginger grilled marinated salmon and Caesar salad on the menus.

"We've got to serve the comfort food: the mac and cheese and the meatloaf and the pot roast," Keane said. "But the other item that's going to be served that day, we try to be a little creative."

Further, folks who come to eat at the hospital regularly know that if they want to eat healthy, they can. At Cheshire, officials actually signed a pledge in 2008 issued by an organization called Healthcare Without Harm promising to create a healthier food environment.

To that end, they've devised a labeling and pricing system for sugared beverages and implemented meatless Mondays, where all of the entrees that day are meatless.

"What it does is just introduce people to these different foods," Girard said. "Because especially in this neck of the woods, it's a lot of meat and potatoes, so we try to show them the kind of recipes that are out there."

For example, some Mondays patrons will see a whole-wheat penne with vegetables or an eggplant parmesan, asparagus and garlic quiche, a balsamic tortellini with basil and tomato and even a sweet-potato tempeh (a fermented soybean cake) and black bean chili pie, Girard said.

"That one kind of scared people at first," he said. "But they like it."

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