The drought in California has everyone concerned that food prices will skyrocket, but so far, the impact of the severe weather has been low for most hospitals, and where felt, strategies have been implemented to minimize the damage.
UCLA Health has been hit hardest by the cost of fruit – particularly citrus fruit, which has tripled in cost – said Guy Scimenes, the health system’s financial director for nutrition services. Vegetable prices have also increased by 20 percent.
The health system tries to make up for the price increases by buying from other areas, like Chile, Washington and Mexico.
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At University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, the rising cost of food has challenged the budget, said Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and food services.
Henroid said romaine lettuce has spiked by 40 percent and grass-fed beef has risen by 11 percent.
Since 80 percent of its food volume is not for patients they are able to make adjustments more quickly. Instead of printed menus, the medical center has a digital menu board that can be changed rapidly. Having that dynamic menu helps reduce its food costs.
When romaine went up, food services staff put only mixed greens and spinach in salads, or used a much smaller portion of romaine. They also put things like “seasonal fruit” on the menu (without naming anything specifically) and use the least expensive ones available at the time. They offer specials that highlight less expensive foods and minimize proteins by offering things like a Vietnamese rice bowl that comes with only chicken or tofu instead of beef.
They also watch the market, do price comparisons and get quotes from more than one vendor.
Making small changes like UCSF has can cut a 10 percent increase in half, said Tom Wessling, vice president of nutrition and environmental services at Amerinet Inc. Hospitals can do things like switch from a 5-ounce chicken breast to a 4-ounce one without people noticing much. They can garnish salads with two tomato wedges instead of four. If broccoli, for instance, is affected by drought, they can reduce the amount of times per week they use it or serve it every other week. Frozen vegetables and fruit can also be purchased less expensively than fresh.
“A lot of facilities are trying to provide healthy food, but as long as they have some kind of green veggie there, that is OK,” he said. “People are pretty flexible and can adapt.”
The biggest opportunity for dramatically reducing costs, Wessling said, is for buyers to use market forecasts. Forecasts, he noted, allow hospital food buyers to know what is going up and down so they can substitute when needed.