Exploring Fresh Food Options for Hospital Staff

A conversation between a nurse and a restaurant manager on how corporate-provided food service can impact attitude, health, and work culture for its staff.
nurse comforting elderly woman
nurse caring for an elderly lady

My neighbor, Patti, has spent fifty-three years working as a registered nurse. She’s a warm, friendly woman who’s fond of dressing in bright tropical prints. We sat in Patti’s back patio, our dogs playing together, while we hid in the shade from the heat of summer, sipping mint and watermelon agua fresca.

“Do you know that I relish the few precious minutes I get to walk my patient out to their car?” she asked.

“Even in this heat?” I asked.

“Especially in this heat,” she replied. I couldn’t help but ask why.

Patti said, “Not only do I get to see them off, but when you work a 12-hour shift in a hospital, from 7pm to 7am, it feels like you’re imprisoned in a castle, sectioned off in an enclosed world. Oftentimes, the walk outside is the only time I get to see what the weather’s like!”

I listened as she continued, imagining the highly structured, artificial work environment juxtaposing Mother Nature.

“And don’t get me started about breaks! You might be in the middle of something and have to drop it just to go on your 30-minute lunch!” Patti said.

“There’s supposed to be a nurse there to take your place, but more often than not….” Patti’s voice trailed off.

Time is of The Essence

bustling commercial kitchen

With agua frescas, a florally-abundant patio and fine weather, it’s easy for us to joke about work. But the more I chatted with Patti, the more I realized some uncomfortable parallels about the medical industry that echoed my experience in the restaurant world. Both industries were filled with people who desired to help others and be of service, performing rigorously technical jobs. Both industries ranked high in alcohol and substance abuse. The long hours, the physical demands, a high-stress environment – these can easily add up to career exhaustion and burnout. The pandemic has only served to highlight just how egregious these issues affect the workers in either industry.

I recalled the times I’ve pulled double shifts while managing restaurants because a line cook called out last minute. It’s more than I want to admit. Heck, even during a normal 8-hour shift, there’s so much to do in order to keep a lean operation running profitably at tip-top food health standards, I’d chronically skip all my 10 minute breaks as well as my 30 minute lunch break, existing only on sugary caffeinated drinks. It got to the point where my line cooks noticed: they’d long since stopped asking me to please sit down (because I just wouldn’t listen) and intervened by cooking up my favorite meal. It was their attempt at curbing my horrible habit.

“You’re a hard charger,” said my front-of-house cashier, Justin, pointing to the steaming hot Pad See Ew that was waiting for me.

Truth be told, I never sat to relax for the full thirty minutes – I took my job far too seriously in looking after that establishment, and my system was way too adrenalized. To this day, it brings a tear to my eye just thinking about their silent gesture because that’s how us cooks communicate: presenting your favorite meal is our love language. It’s how my team showed me they cared because they could see I was running around making sure everything was operationally sound…at my own expense.

Looking After Those Who Look After You

nurse handing over bowl of salad to patient

Patti, for all her warmth and personality, did not look healthy. She was apple-shaped and obese, her face puffy, her waist distended. She walked stiffly on two thin legs. Her back was rounded, with enlarged shoulders from years of constant lifting. It was clear her knees and feet bothered her. I couldn’t help but wonder about the optics of healthcare: how a lot of nurses I’d met were out of shape and shared unhealthy appearances. Something seemed off: how could an industry promote healthcare, yet cause its employees to be overweight and rundown?

Registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, orderlies: all these people are there for you when you’re most vulnerable – sometimes at your lowest-of-low life moments. It is their duty and responsibility to make sure all their patients are OK. I couldn’t help but ask, who was there to look after Patti with a plate of fresh delicious food? There’s power in food. Real food is restorative. I’m talking about food that’s fresh, visually-appealing and appetizing. Not stuff that’s processed to barely meet nutritional requirements or looks like it came out of a dusty gas station. My chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu once said, “We’re the only animals on this planet that cook our food and make a big deal out of it.” One could say that the discovery of fire and cooking was the genesis of culture – it is what distinguishes us as humans.

The State of Healthcare Foodservice

vending machine full of junk food.
Hospital food options at 3am.

As Patti and I talked further and nibbled on a fresh fruit salad, she said, “Time is your enemy when it comes to eating or taking a 10 minute break. I know it’s mandated by California law – those tiny breaks and half hour lunch – but the truth is, nurses eat on the run, or don’t eat at all. The rare occasions we nurses get to go out for lunch, it feels amazing. Sitting down to a real meal, rather than a granola bar, seems unreal: it makes you feel like a human being again. Like you’re part of something meaningful.”

Getting Behind a Fresh Food Cultural Revolution

FoodSpot Clear Glass microstore stocked with quality fresh food.
FoodSpot Clear Glass microstore stocked with quality fresh food.

I absolutely understand how work cultures can mold unhealthy habits into an accepted status quo. I’ve experienced it myself. The difference between my restaurant management experience and Patti’s medical world was that I had access to fresh food, and to skilled people who could cook it right. Hospital food, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired.

“What if there was a smart vending fridge filled with fruit parfaits, salads, rice bowls, sushi, hummus and re-heatable shepherd’s pie?” I asked, posing the ideal of an intelligent vending solution in Patti’s breakroom. “That. Would. Be. Amazing.” she replied. “Especially for those of us who work the ‘noc’ [short for ‘nocturnal’ aka overnight shift]. You wouldn’t have to stress anymore. A fresh food vending machine on every floor, in every breakroom? Even if you ate all your leftovers and needed more sustenance, there would be abundant choices. It’d be something I’d look forward to.”

For more information about how to get a FoodSpot smart vending machine into your staff break room, click here.

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