By making changes big and small, a Minneapolis hospital fights an uphill battle against rising food costs.
Cook Eric Schultz prepared Southwestern chicken salads during lunch hour in the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview’s cafeteria at the Riverside campus. Higher food prices have caused the hospital to change menus and ingredients to try to stay within budget .
If you're wincing at prices at your local supermarket these days, imagine a weekly bill of $30,000. ¶ For the cafeteria team at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview's Riverside campus, that's the low end of the food bill each week.
With about 80,000 meals to prepare each month for patients, doctors and staff, Fairview, like all who buy food, is fighting an uphill battle against rising prices. Compared with a year ago, the cost of meal ingredients at Fairview has gone up 6 percent, about the same as the cost of at-home groceries in the Midwest. So far, the hospital has raised its cafeteria prices only 3.2 percent.
"We actually are financially worse off, because we didn't jack them up any higher," said James Stewart, director of nutrition services at Fairview's Riverside campus.
In recent months, the team at Fairview Riverside has summoned all its ingenuity to adapt menus and operations to stay within its $4.5 million annual budget. Similar changes, big and small, are happening all around the country in organizations that feed large numbers of people daily.
Fairview is buying more local produce, cooking entrees in smaller batches and switching to reusable kitchenware, all while trying to meet the ever more demanding palates of their customers. Yes, even the sick ones.
Just last week, for instance, the cafeteria switched from black plastic foam plates to white. Annual savings? About $13,000 if it continues, Steinmetz said. Another $5,000 was saved when the kitchens switched to a different brand of chicken tenders, he said.
Some pricier items have simply vanished from the menus. Tomatoes in the hamburger line, for example, were coming close to the cost of the hamburger itself and were dropped.
The lemon slices that used to come with iced tea and water are gone. "Who wouldn't like lemon in their water ... but they've gone up 12 percent," Stewart said.
Mandarin oranges are out
Entire dishes went away. Oriental chicken salad is now a distant memory (the mandarin oranges became too expensive). As is chicken curry on rice (blame the price of coconut milk).
Stewart said customers are fairly understanding. "They'll say they go to their local Cub or Byerly's, and say, 'It's crazy what the groceries cost, how do you guys get by?'"
Over the past three months especially, Stewart and executive chef Jon Steinmetz have been racking their brains to keep costs down.
Milk costs about 18 percent more than it did a year ago. And the shift of corn to use for ethanol has affected the demand for wheat, Steinmetz said, so bakery items are more expensive.
Some bakery goods are cheaper for his team to bake in-house, he said, but others, such as English muffins, are just cheaper to buy frozen (at 11 cents each, they're a third the price of those fresh from the bakery).
Also, Steinmetz changed the brand of coffee creamer he ordered from Richard's to Coffee-Mate and cut the cost in half.
These days, Steinmetz and Stewart pore over computer spreadsheets to analyze buying patterns and estimate how many meals to cook each day.
"We're trying not to overproduce anything," Steinmetz said. "Because all of those little costs really add up, at the end of the day, end of the month and end of the year." His cooks now prepare food in smaller batches, trying to reduce waste.
"Once it's heated, then you're pretty much stuck with the product," Stewart said. "You try to avoid cooking it unless we're really going to be serving it."
Stewart and Steinmetz also regularly receive fresh-produce and market-trend reports so they can follow and forecast the quality and cost of different ingredients in order to plan their menus.
Their contract with one supplier requires that certain vegetables must come from local sources if they are available, Stewart said.
That's helped a little, especially since most of their suppliers now add a "drop charge" to each delivery to help cover their rising fuel costs. Steinmetz said he is considering changing their delivery frequency from three times a week to two.
So have regular diners noticed? A small, unscientific survey of people eating lunch in the cafeteria last week said no.
Nina Ferraro, a dietary aide at the hospital, did say she noticed some things such as the absence of tomatoes in the hamburger line.
"That's fine with me," Ferraro said of the substitutions. "As long as I don't taste a difference, then I'm all for it."
Emma L. Carew • 612-673-7405