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Hospital Food So Fresh, Even The Healthy Come To Dine

Twice a week, local seniors in Warrenton, Virginia, flock to a hip new dinner spot called the Bistro on the Hill for good food, a great view, and musical accompaniment by a retired piano player from a nearby Nordstrom's.

Only "The Bistro" is no stand-alone restaurant. It's the cafeteria of Fauquier Hospital, one of a new group of "patient-centered" health facilities focused on meeting more than just people's medical needs. Fauquier is one of about a dozen U.S. hospitals certified by a group called Planetree, which sets strict standards for patient-centered care.

And when it comes to patient-centered care, food is more than just something you eat.

"We believe that food is nurturing," says Zach Erickson, Fauquier's director of nutrition services. And for many hospitalized patients, "we [food servers] are the best distraction they have throughout the day, I like to think."

That's right from Planetree's checklist, which calls for highlighting the "nutritional and nurturing aspects of food." It's not the kind of hospital where you'll find a McDonalds, that's for sure. And you don't have to pay extra to get it.

At Fauquier, the food starts, literally at ground level, at the hospital's "culinary healing garden," located just outside the Bistro, overlooking the hospital's million-dollar view of the Virginia countryside.

Even in early May, food service staff are harvesting fast-growing lettuce (including what they call "'rocket arugula," because it's rocketed out of the ground," says Erickson) that will be used in the coming hours in the cafeteria's salad bar as well as in patient meals. There's also the essential herbs, like oregano, dill, sage, and chives. The all-organic garden (even the wood trellises are untreated to prevent chemicals from leaching into the ground) is also home to ripening strawberries, tomatillos, spinach, and the lavender used for for aromatherapy.

What's not grown in the garden is purchased as locally as possible, Erickson says. "We believe the shorter the food chain, the better the food."

And Erickson, a trained chef, says a lot of effort goes into keeping the meals as healthy as possible. "It's important that the things we provide we can feel are wholesome, and devoid of anything that might cause harm to the body. So we take no shortcuts." For example, he says, "we make all our salad dressings from scratch; so no additives, no preservatives, no transfats, no hydrogenated oils."

You also won't see the typical food carts loaded with cardboard chicken and soggy carrots being pushed around the halls at Fauquier. All the meals are cooked to order for each patient. And almost all the orders are placed in person, rather than by phone.

Erickson says there's a reason he wants his staff to go and see patients in person.

"You get so many more cues about that patient that you wouldn't have picked up on the phone," he says. "You'll find out that they're having trouble with an arm, or they've having trouble physically that's going to make whatever they're ordering difficult and at that point you're going to make suggestions to better improve their experience."

So beyond the hype, how's the food?

Most folks we chatted with gave it two thumbs up.

"I like the food here," says Eleanor Reed, who makes it a point to attend the senior dinners at the Bistro when her schedule allows. "It's pretty good."

And Joe Kennedy, who was getting a late lunch while his daughter was being tended to in the emergency department, was most impressed with the service.

"She's got the Mongolian wok going for me right now so I've got to compliment them on that," he said. "I thought I was gonna get a sandwich or something that was pretty prepared and instead they're making it for me while I wait, so it's wonderful."

Do they make any money on the food? Nah, says Erickson. The meals on seniors nights go for $4.50 a plate. And a lot of the garden work is donated by the community and supported by farmers' markets.

But it's an investment. If patients eat better, they'll feel better and leave the hospital quicker.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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