Mille Lacs Health System

12 08 2009

By Sarah Milnar

Wrinkled hands tightly grasped cuttinDSC_7666g knives, carefully slicing radishes, wedging potatoes and chopping green beans. They worked slowly. Those who could grip a knife came to help. Others just came to visit. Amidst the sea of walkers and wheelchairs, furrowed faces and wafting white hair, Gladys held her knife with authority.

“It takes power to cut these babies,” said Gladys, placing an experienced hand on the dull side of her knife and forcefully chopping into a fresh baby red potato. From a family of 15 children, Gladys is no stranger to preparing food. But it’s difficult to tell whether Gladys likes to cook or if it’s a duty she’s grown fond of.

“Like it or not, you gotta do it,” she said.

Gladys and eight other residents of the Mille Lacs Health System Nursing Home in Onamia, Minnesota, gathered to chop vegetables as an activity the afternoon before MLHS’s monthly themed meal. Each month, nursing home residents choose the theme of a noontime meal to share with friends and family in the hospital dining hall. Themes of the past have included Mexican and country-style, but July’s theme brought the meal a little closer to home: local foods.

“I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with local growers and provide the freshest produce possible to serve our customers,” said Shaye Vensel-Hein, MLHS director of Nutritional Services. “We want this to be just like home. Bringing in fresh produce is what the residents remember from home. Or it’s what we hope they remember.”

The Mille Lacs area has a rich agricultural history, and many of the 54 nursing home residents grew up on a farm. Some had victory gardens during World War II. Others simply understood the benefits of homegrown food from their days before the advent of large-scale supermarkets.

DSC_7686“They miss their homegrown foods,” said Shaye.

The local foods meal was the kick-off to what members of MLHS hope to be a long tradition of building community and supporting their local food-system. As the growing season continues, MLHS will supplement fresh, locally grown produce with foods from their corporate vendor for the more than 400 meals served daily at MLHS. The Dietary Department will work with local growers to build seasonal produce into MLHS’s daily menu.

All of the farm-fresh food came from just over a 30-mile radius of Mille Lacs Health System. Josephine Rapatz of Onamia provided onions, garlic and chard. She even donated her old-time recipe for cream style chard popular among “old folks.” Chuck Long of Green Bush Farms in Milaca provided turnips, potatoes, red onions and zucchini for the stir-fry. The radishes came from the Onamia farm of Ben and Karen Korte. Additional lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, green beans, peppers and onions came from MLHS’s on-site community garden.

Swedish meatballs are a favorite of many of the residents, so the kitchen team used pork provided by Barb Eller. Barb grew up in Onamia, and said she always knew many of the ladies now in the nursing home as “Mrs. So-and-So.” Now Barb stops by MLHS each week to collect potato skins to feed her pigs and say hello to the ladies that have become a part of her extended family. “It’s hard for me to see them in the situation they’re in,” said Barb. “But on the other hand, it’s nice to do something to help them smile for the day because they still reach out to help me smile.”

DSC_7698The nursing home residents do, without a doubt, bring out smiles. Some, like Irene, will pose for the camera by dramatically putting an arm behind a tilted head. Others, like Alice, will tell you their life stories.

After complications with multiple sclerosis caused her to resign from her position as Ramsey County deputy sheriff, Alice worked as a cook in the Ramsey County Jail. She always enjoyed cooking for staff and inmates, but noted how easy it was to open a can of green beans and serve them salty and soggy. There’s more to it than spaghetti,” said Alice, of serving balanced meals.

Now Alice has lost use of the entire right side of her body. She gets herself around by feebly shifting the joystick on her motorized wheelchair with her left hand. But she still showed up to help prepare produce before the local foods meal. With one hand on a circular knife, she halved green beans.

The next day Alice wasn’t feeling well. She picked at the green beans she helped cut from her room.

Shaye said it’s often difficult to get the nursing home residents to eat. Age or medication can weaken the palate, causing food to loose its appeal and satisfaction.

“In the hospital they’re sick,” she said. “But if we can get them to look at the food and have it look pleasing to they eye, that’s a goal. If we can get them to say the food smells good, that’s a goal. If we can get them to eat the food and they say they like it, then we’ve hit our plateau.”

But there are nutritional challenges involved in hitting the plateau. The MLHS kitchen team must steam vegetables until they are soft to the chew, but not so much that the food loses nutrients. Instead of just opening canned purees, MLHS purées everything on site, a job that takes more time and effort, but produces more nutritious results.

When it comes to the nutritional differences between food grown locally and food that is processed and packaged, Danna Woods, the hospital’s registered dietitian, said MLHS always keeps food quality in mind. “The more distance and time that a food travels, the quality of the food may be compromised,” she said. “If produce can be purchased locally, in many cases the produce can be picked and served the same day or within a couple of days. The quality of this produce iSnapshot 2009s much higher.”

Shaye agreed that it all comes down to food quality and presentation, and tossing in fresh and local flavors is ideal. She noted that there’s other ways to flavor food rather than just adding salt. “There’s garlic, onions, basil,” she said. “And if it’s fresh from the garden, it tastes worlds better and gives the sensation the elderly need to make them want to eat.” Shaye also stressed the importance of garnish on the table or plate. A radish flower and onion set arranged nicely upon a bed of leaf lettuce added a sudden charm to the tables at the local foods meal.

It seemed as though nurses couldn’t get the steaming plates out to residents quickly enough. Harriet, who had sliced potatoes the day before using a blue cafeteria tray as a makeshift cutting board, eyed the food her tablemates had received first. “Well where’s mine?” she impatiently asked a nurse. “It’s coming, Harriet.”

Moments later Harriet had her own heaping plate. “Oh, this is good,” she said as she chewed a forkful of Yukon gold potatoes with butter and garlic. “And I was so damn hungry.”

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