Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician and father of Western medicine, famously wrote, "Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food."
Thank Zeus he never ate in a hospital cafeteria.
I know it seems like an easy target. We expect hospital food to be terrible, so why go to the trouble of reviewing it? Because hospital food, like all other quadrants of the food industry, has begun to evolve.
Take a look at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan, for one. By sourcing its food from organic farms committed to healthy produce and sustainable agriculture, it is introducing the idea of fresh and healthy foods to people who need it most: patients. Park City Medical Center in Utah buys much of its produce and baked goods locally. The chef there (yep, chef), Jason Kieffer, started his career at New York's famed Tavern on the Green. Now he's bringing his more thoughtful, organic-when-possible approach to hospital food. Figure that.
Yet "hospital food" is, almost universally, considered a slur. If you say something tastes like hospital food, whoever made it for you will likely take umbrage, if not take a spork and stab you with it. The proof is in the processed pudding: hospital food ranks below even airplane food in polls, albeit usually informal ones, conducted by bored people on the internet, but still, it's a known fact: hospital cafeterias are the pits.
Normally when a restaurant serves bad food, the situation resolves itself. This is the beauty of the industry. It self-corrects. Lousy food leads to lousy word of mouth and ultimately, to lousy business. Next thing you know, the restaurant shuts its doors.
Not so in the medical industry. We don't come to hospitals for food. We come for help. We come in times of need or sometimes neuroses, but whatever the reason, we're usually scared and desperate. Food is the last thing on our minds.
That's not to say we don't need it. In fact, some health professionals strongly believe that food has a whole lot to do with healing. Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago only serves antibiotic-free meat now, which seems like common sense. Aren't a patient's prescribed antibiotics supposed to be carefully chosen?
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has a relatively strong rep among hospitals in Los Angeles. US News & World Report placed it at number two in a field of one hundred and forty local health centers. Even the interior is a notch above. Gone (for the most part) is the antiseptic anonymity that comes with most white-washed hallways and waiting rooms. As hospitals go, it's not a bad place to be.
The cafeteria is a separate issue.
Straight away upon entering, you know where you are. Harsh overhead lighting, corkboard ceilings with occasional, unsightly blemishes of water damage, and carpet patterns only a Las Vegas suit salesman could love signal the kind of experience you should expect. Hospital dining is, after all, a game of expectations - low expectations - and the food, presentation and décor of The Ray Charles Cafeteria do not disappoint.
To its credit, the cafeteria does offer a wide variety: a full salad bar, fruit, soup, a grill for hot entrees, deli sandwiches, a pizza station, what has to be the largest selection of beverages this side of the Coca-Cola factory, and a Kosher section (however paltry the latter may be).
It's the taste, or lack thereof, that's the issue. Safe is the operative word here.
The burgers are perfectly fine and functional frozen patties, cooked until well-well-done, most likely to stave off lawsuits.
The Minnesota Wild Rice Soup, for such an ornately titled item, tastes canned.
The vegetarian option the day I visited was Baked Ziti, and although packed with vegetables, each ingredient's flavor fell victim to the soggy, rubbery end result. Worse yet, shreds of mozzarella cheese lay unmelted on top, an obviously accidental omission before heating and, unfortunately for me, last-minute addition before serving.
Even the off-brand jello, the true test of a hospital cafeteria's mettle, lacked any real flavor.
All in all, it tasted like, well, cafeteria food. School cafeteria food.
Which makes sense.
Sodexo, which provides food for Cedars-Sinai, services more schools and universities than any other corporation in the world, along with government facilities, military bases, nursing homes, and what their website calls "Remote Sites" - locations spanning "from the Artic to the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico" - which sounds like a long way to go for the same old slop.
This is no doubt the culprit. Despite an impressive array of menu options and even a few nods to healthy living, including health info (carb, calorie, fat and protein content) posted on every wall menu, The cafeteria still manages to sink into hospital food cliché. It's by no means the worst, and for a functional meal, it comes at a very fair price (except the Kosher grape juice, which costs four dollars). Yet at the end of the day, it's still hospital food, familiar and banal.
On a ratings scale from "Critical Condition" to "Healthy," the Ray Charles Cafeteria can be rated "Stable," but should be kept under observation.
[Photos by Amy Tierney.]