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LIVINGSTON — The telltale scent of institutional food — more specifically the lack thereof — offers the first clue that something’s different at Livingston HealthCare.

A tour through the kitchen confirms what the olfactory receptors have already detected. The cooks are busy dicing, chopping and mixing ingredients for the day’s menu options.

“When we stopped just reheating prepared food and started cooking again in the kitchen, they (staff) pulled out the stops,” said Jessie Williams, the hospital’s food and nutrition services manager.

Not only has the hospital shifted its focus to whole foods, but it’s buying a large share of those foods from Montana producers. Few would doubt the health benefits, but Williams says the switch is also healthy for her budget.

“This is not that hard,” she said. “It can be done. You just start with one thing, even if it’s just onions. I’ll tell you, it will snowball from there.”

 

Big Sky bounty

 

In the three years since Williams landed her job at Livingston HealthCare, she’s launched a transformation in the cafeteria. Being fresh out of school, full of new ideas and lacking a Montana pedigree, the Cape Cod native marvels now at the progress they’ve made.

She started with a list of resources provided from the Livingston-based Western Sustainability Exchange. Since then, her roll of local producers has grow to several dozen, including lamb from Wolfridge Lamb in Emigrant, sugar from Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings, potatoes from Bausch Potatoes in Whitehall, produce from Farms for Families in Livingston, flour from Ace Hi Bakers in Billings and pasta from Country Pasta in Great Falls. According to Williams, more than 50 percent of the hospital’s food can be traced to locally grown ingredients.

“One of the things I look for is how far the food has traveled. And what am I spending my money for?” Williams said. “The fresher, the more whole, the closer to home — it makes such a huge difference to me.”

Besides the more typical fare, she buys hummus from Z Hummus in Belgrade and lentils from Timeless Seeds in Conrad. She has even located cod, salmon and canned salmon with a Montana connection, buying direct from Livingston resident John Baird’s Great Northern Sea Food.

“He owns his own fleet in Alaska,” she said. “The fish are caught on his boat, flash-frozen and sent here.”

And thanks to B Bar Ranch up the Paradise Valley, she’s managed to keep the cafeteria’s salad bar stocked with fresh, Montana-grown greens — even during this frigid winter.

“They’ve got a greenhouse that’s heated with a wood-burning stove,” she explained.

The hospital’s new menu offers greater variety and seems to be a hit with patients, staff and guests. Just one year into Williams’ project, the kitchen was serving 3,000 more meals than it had the year before.

Not only are the meals healthy, but they’re affordable, said Lea Chatham, marketing coordinator for the hospital.

“You could easily eat all three meals here for less than you’d pay for one meal somewhere else,” she said.

 

A no-brainer

 

The shift to healthier choices seems a no-brainer, particularly in a hospital setting. But buying local is not the norm. Livingston HealthCare was the first hospital in Montana to participate in the Montana Farm to Restaurant Campaign. Several other institutions have since shown interest or taken steps in that direction, Williams said.

At Livingston HealthCare, the transformation has not come without some resistance.

Hospital administrators have been very supportive, she said, but it took a bit longer to earn buy-in from kitchen staff.

“It’s very labor-intensive,” she said.

Not only is there more prep work involved, but kitchen staff spent hours last fall blanching and freezing locally grown chard, beet greens, spinach and kale.

The added tasks prompted more staff to be hired, but even still, the system pencils out, Williams said.

Debra Bauer was working in the kitchen when the transformation took place. Some of her peers had a tough time adjusting, but Bauer welcomed the switch.

“I’m a scratch cook from way back,” she said, adding that she’s excited to be breaking new ground and simultaneously helping the local economy. “I’d rather see cattle in the field than a box store.”

Though Williams still hears the occasional complaint — “why are there only wheat buns for the hamburgers?” — she’s noticed a gradual change in eating habits and lifestyle choices. One employee lost 50 pounds and two others quit smoking. 

 

Making cents

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To illustrate how cooking with local foods measures up, Williams compares pre-made lasagna with one made from scratch. The former runs about double the cost of just the ingredients, she said, and its sodium content is “through the roof.”

Rather than spend her budget on prepared ingredients, Williams prefers redirecting her funds to local jobs and Montana businesses.

The arrangement is a win-win for producers like Big Timber ranchers Roger and Betsy Indreland. The Indreland family, who sell beef to the hospital, started marketing their own brand six years ago. By promoting their hormone and antibiotic-free Angus beef direct to consumers, restaurants and grocery stores like the Good Earth Market in Billings, they hoped to find a formula that would provide a more dependable source of income for the ranch.

When Williams contacted them, they were already delivering beef into Livingston and Bozeman, so were glad to add another stop.

“It really works well for us,” Betsy said. “It’s kind of a standing order, something we can count on every two weeks.”

 

Setting priorities

 

Besides the natural resistance to change, there are other reasons why more facilities don’t follow Livingston’s lead. Williams, who still purchases many food items from Food Services of America and Sysco, admits that the two giants have created a superefficient system that’s tough to beat. She also points out that both have gradually added more local items to their product lines.

“To be honest, they have it nailed,” she said. “As long as you get on your computer and order by noon, you can have it the next day. They’ve made it very, very easy and reliable.”

Williams’ system involves more planning — one of her sources ships only every six weeks — and dozens more phone calls and deliveries. Many of the growers she deals with deliver their own products, but finding a distributor for the rest presented her biggest hurdle, until Valley Distributing of Billings stepped up.

“But these are things I’m willing to do,” she said. “It may be easier for me, but I think you just need to make it a priority.”

In hopes of helping others who share her philosophy, Williams has taken an active role with organizations close to home and across the state. Ultimately, she said, she’d like to serve as a resource for anyone contemplating a move toward local and whole foods.

“I want to encourage people to give it a whirl,” she said. “Actually, it’s pretty darn fun — especially if you like food.”

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