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Hospital Food Done Right at Jefferson Regional in Pine Bluff

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Like most people, the thought of eating hospital food doesn’t exactly get me excited. People visiting their loved ones probably don’t have “great meal” at the top of their priority list. Given the inherent fears and anxiety of most hospital experiences, wouldn’t it be reassuring to know that you could get a thoughtful, well-planned meal experience at the hospital? Some hospitals are aiming to raise the bar in terms of food services for their patients, guests, and employees. So when David Chacon, the director of Nutrition for Sodexo at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff, invited me to check out what he and his team were doing, I just couldn’t resist.

“It is a fairly typical cafeteria that seats approximately 125. We have a fresh made-to-order salad station, a hot entrée area, grill, pizza station, deli, and a grab-and-go cooler with items that we prepare fresh daily. Our display or action station is what gets most people excited. We offer different specialty creations from the Sodexo catalog, with things like a pasta bar, deluxe burger bar, a barbecue theme, and ramen noodles. We also do a ‘Taco Tuesday’ and have a specialty salad on Wednesdays,” says Chacon.

Truth be told, David tempted me with fried catfish, which is part of the hospital’s “Fancy Friday” menu. And who can say no to fried catfish?

“Friday is really our home run day. Our catfish and smoky greens are fantastic. We also feature our ‘Fancy Friday’ meal. I set the menu. It is of higher quality and it costs more. One example is a blackened salmon over wild rice, topped with tomato Provencale and paired with creamed spinach. It comes with a dinner roll, cookie, and a soft drink for $7.79.”

While I can’t vouch for the blackened salmon, I can tell you the crispy, cornmeal battered, fried catfish was the real deal, as were those greens. My other lunchtime surprise came in the form of an automated salad-making machine.

“Sally the Robot is a new technology. There are two in Arkansas and approximately sixty nationwide. The machine allows the user to customize a salad by choosing up to two types of greens, six toppings, and a dressing. With sixteen internal canisters, the combination of ingredients is almost limitless. The machine is refrigerated and will not dispense product if the machine is not within federal food temperature safety guidelines. In addition, as we replace product within the machine, we put in its shelf life. Again, it will not dispense if the product is past its shelf life. Food safety, freshness, and selection are among the top qualities of this machine. The salads are $5.99 and contain the same amount of product as our made-to-order salad bar,” says Chacon.

To watch Sally do her thing is truly impressive. The entire transaction only takes a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, sometimes enacting change in a customer base can take longer than expected.

“To be honest, the response has not been what I was hoping for. I have heard some concerns about the perception of quality or freshness that we need to overcome. We are in the process of moving it to the vending area to leverage that foot traffic and increase visibility overnight when the cafeteria is closed.”

Embracing technology is important, but for Chacon, the rewarding part of his job comes from the people.

“Without a doubt, it’s the people. Making a difference in the lives of our patients, patient family members, and hospital employees is what we live for. I am blessed to have an amazing staff. The leadership at Jefferson Regional and hospital culture are tip-top.”

Speaking of tip-top, make sure to check out that fried catfish on Fridays.

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Kevin Shalin is a food writer living in Little Rock with his wife, Sara, and two daughters, Natalie (12) and Sydney (7). He started his own blog, The Mighty Rib, seven years ago while living in Houston. Six months later, he began writing for Eating Our Words, a Houston Press food blog. After a year in Boston, he moved to Little Rock, where he’s been for almost five years. During that time, he’s written for Little Rock Soiree, Rock City Eats, Treatsie, and Bourbon and Boots.

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