KEALAKEKUA — At lunch time on Monday, staff and visitors at Kona Community Hospital were lining up with their trays inside Ginger Cafe.
As customers chose between the entrees of the day of eggplant adobo or chicken papaya or decided to make their way along the salad bar, they were benefiting from a new approach at the cafe — food made fresh and, when possible, using local ingredients.
“As one of the largest employers on the west side, I think that we do have a role in helping our employees have good healthful choices here during the day,” said Judy Donovan, West Hawaii regional director of marketing and strategic planning for Hawaii Health Systems Corp. “But also if they’re learning about food and nutrition here at work, that information and knowledge will go home with them.”
The sharper focus on fresh, locally sourced food comes out of a partnership with Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, which is based in Chicago and helps move kitchens away from processed food to cooking more local food from scratch. Beyond Green has previously worked with Kohala and Mililani high schools as part of the Aina Pono Hawaii State Farm to School program.
And that process, said Beyond Green CEO and Chef Greg Christian, is the result of talking to and listening to people on all sides of the meal as it goes from farm to table.
“We go listen to the customers: ‘What do you want?’” he said. “We listen to the cooks: ‘What do you want to make?’ We talk to the farmers: ‘What do you got?’ And then we converge those three, and it’s not that hard. It’s much simpler than people think.”
The hospital, Christian said, formerly offered four entrees a day, most of them “processed, out-of-the-freezer, heated-and-served stuff.”
“We now have two entrees a day: one meat, one vegan,” he added. “And the vegan meals are selling like you have no idea. It’s unbelievable.”
These days, the most popular meals include dishes like broccoli alfredo, roasted cauliflower, kalua pork and chicken long rice.
It’s been a change with a positive impact on staff and patients, said Michelle Grove, registered dietitian and nutritionist, who was at the cafe on Monday.
“The patients I’ve seen have been really excited, and they’ve been willing to try more fruits and vegetables having the options available,” said Grove.
She said she was especially impressed to see fresh ahi recently made available to staff and patients.
“And that’s something that I’ve never seen in a hospital anywhere,” said Grove.
Donovan said she’s already found some favorites of her own coming out the revamp, such as the cafe’s chickpea wrap, and its teri-tofu stir fry.
The success of the initiative is proving itself in the numbers as well. Looking at the cafe’s weekday sales, Donovan said sales went up 8% between March 2018 and March 2019.
It’s also increasing the opportunities for local producers to find a market for what they’ve got.
In March, more than a quarter of food purchases — about $8,855 — were for local foods, up from less than 20 percent this past September. And these days, Christian said, they’re pacing to buy $15,000 a month in local food.
That, he added, is money staying here on the island.
“This is how we’re going to rebuild the local food system,” he said.
Donovan said she’s also noticed that the hospital’s dietary staff has “really blossomed” under the initiative.
“I do believe they’re really enjoying providing better, fresher food, and they’re really enjoying the positive feedback,” she said. “Who doesn’t enjoy positive feedback about their workplace product, right?”
It’s also created opportunities for one of their chefs with a specialty in making desserts, and the cafe has plans to start cycling a “chef’s choice” into the monthly menu.
“I just can’t say how thrilled I am with the dietary folks for stepping up to the task on this,” Donovan said. “And I think our staff are really enjoying the results of it.”
While Donovan said they’re at pace with where they had wanted to be, they’re still looking to do more, such as incorporating more alternative grains into the tray line.
Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Ginger Cafe and a “meal deal” consisting of an entree and two sides costs $6.50 for staff and $7.50 for visitors. The salad bar is $4.50.