Mush No More: Retirement Home Food Gets Fresh And Local | KUOW News and Information

Mush No More: Retirement Home Food Gets Fresh And Local

Jun 2, 2015
Originally published on July 10, 2015 10:33 pm

Want to eat food that's fresh, local and cooked from scratch? Consider a retirement home. Once known for bland, institutional fare, hundreds of retirement communities around the nation now tout their restaurant-like dining experiences.

One of those is Bethlehem Woods in La Grange Park, Ill. Resident Marge Healy counts on having dinner with the same group of friends every evening.

"We're almost like a family," she says, as her friends nod in agreement.

They've all been living at Bethlehem Woods for several years. But in the past year, there's been a big change. It's the food. And it's better, says Dolores Groch.

"Everything is fresh," she says. "Soups made from scratch. And they change the menu so often. I mean, if you were at home cooking, you wouldn't have that many choices."

This evening the choices are tilapia with caper butter, baked ham with raisin sauce or a heart-healthy frittata. There's also a selection of soups, salads and sides. It's all been made a few yards away in the Bethlehem Woods kitchen, under the supervision of chef Eric David Corradetti.

"You can get an idea of what we're all about," he says, stepping into the big walk-in refrigerator. There are shelves upon shelves here of fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy products and meat.

"We don't use a ton of frozen product here," he explains. "That's the versatility of being with Unidine and their whole fresh approach."

Unidine is the name of the company that employs Chef Corradetti and has been in charge of the dining service at Bethlehem Woods for about a year.

The company runs the kitchens in about 120 other senior living facilities around the country. In all of them you can find the company's Fresh Food Pledge, posted on a wall and signed by every member of the kitchen staff. It says that all salad dressings, sauces and stocks will be made fresh, food will be locally sourced, they'll only use eggs from cage-free chickens, meats without hormones or antibiotics, and so on.

This approach was what Unidine founder Richard Schenkel calls his "epiphany" when he started the company 14 years ago.

"There were two different reasons we did it," says Schenkel. "No. 1, we thought it would be more cost effective."

No. 2? He believed it would be healthier and tastier.

"Who buys processed turkey to eat on Thanksgiving?" asks Schenkel. "None of us."

Schenkel got into the food business as a kid, working in his dad's diner in Newark, N.J. He got his start working with older adults from a part-time high school job at a nursing home.

"I really liked the residents," he says. "It was like being around your grandmother all the time."

Unidine serves the whole spectrum of facilities for older adults: both independent and assisted living, as well as nursing homes. So its chefs come up with recipes to make sure that each resident gets proper nutrition, no matter what their challenges are.

In a test kitchen in Unidine's Boston headquarters, chef Spencer Mundy throws fruit, yoghurt, custard-y tofu and coconut milk into a blender. He's demonstrating how to sneak a lot of extra protein and calories into a smoothie for people who have difficulty keeping their weight up.

This recipe is an "anything goes" improvisation, but he seems satisfied with the result. "Not too bad, right?" he asks me. It was delicious, actually. "No added sugar," he says.

Mundy and Unidine dietician Jenny Overly have also come up with recipes designed for people with dementia or Parkinson's Disease.

"Anyone that's having issues using utensils" can benefit, says Overly. "We still want them to enjoy eating ... and not have to be fed by someone else" in order to maintain dignity and independence.

Unidine's solution is bite-sized hand food, sort of like having hors d'oeuvres three meals a day. Mundy can get an entire breakfast into one of these things. He starts by putting shredded potatoes into a mini-muffin pan, making a little nest. Pour eggs, ham, bacon and cheese into the little holes and bake.

"It's just a bite-size, all-in-one breakfast," says Mundy.

This kind of service is not just for the well-to-do retiree. Deana Wilson is head of housing for Presence Life Connections, the company that owns Bethlehem Woods and 28 other senior living facilities. She says her food costs have not gone up since she hired Unidine, "because it is less expensive to buy food and prepare it, than to buy it already prepared and warm it up."

For some residents of Bethlehem Woods, this approach to food is what they've always known. For others, the menu is an adventure. Kathleen Lynch says she likes "plain food." She's not used to food with sauces.

"But I'm getting used to them," she says. "I had lasagna yesterday for the first time. It was delicious."

No doubt that's because it was made with fresh ingredients and cooked from scratch.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

To share a meal cooked with fresh, locally grown food, you might not think to visit someone you know at a retirement home, but hundreds of retirement communities around the nation now tout their restaurant-like dining experiences. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and she introduces us to a company that pioneered the idea.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Dinner at the Bethlehem Woods retirement community is a time for friends to get together.

MARGE HEALY: We're almost like a family. Don't you feel?

MILLIE PRENDERGAST: We are. We sure are.

JAFFE: That some Millie Prendergast and Marge Healy. They've been living at Bethlehem Woods in La Grange Park, Ill., for quite a while, and they've noticed the change in the food just this past year. And it's for the better, says her friend Dolores Groch.

DOLORES GROCH: Everything is fresh. Soups are made from scratch, and they change the menu so often. I mean, if you were at home, cooking, you wouldn't have that many choices.

JAFFE: This evening, you can order tilapia with caper butter, baked ham with raisin sauce or a heart-healthy frittata, plus choice of soups, salads and sides, all created by chef Eric David Corradetti in the Bethlehem Woods kitchen.

ERIC DAVID CORRADETTI: That's our main cooler here. You can get a good idea for what we're all about here.

JAFFE: Oh, brother. It's cold in here.

CORRADETTI: Yeah, it's a little chilly.

JAFFE: What you see in the walk-in fridge are shelves upon shelves of fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products.

CORRADETTI: So we don't use a ton of frozen product here. You know, that's the versatility of being with Unidine and their whole fresh approach.

JAFFE: Unidine is the name of the company that employs Chef Corradetti and runs the dining service at Bethlehem Woods and about 120 other senior living facilities around the country. On the door of the kitchen in all the kitchens they run is the company's Fresh Food Pledge. It says that all salad dressing sauces and stocks will be made fresh, food will be locally sourced, they'll only use eggs from cage-free chickens, meats without hormones or antibiotics and so on. This approach was what Unidine founder Richard Schenkel calls his epiphany when he started the company 14 years ago.

RICHARD SCHENKEL: There were two different reasons we did it. Number one - we thought it would be more cost-effective. And number two - if you really think about fresh, fresh is healthy and wellness.

JAFFE: And it tastes better.

SCHENKEL: Who buys processed turkey to eat on Thanksgiving? None of us.

JAFFE: Schenkel got his start in the food business as a kid working in his dad's diner in Newark, N.J. He got his start working with older adults from a part-time high school job in a nursing home.

SCHENKEL: I really liked the residents. It was like being around your grandmother all the time.

JAFFE: Unidine serves the whole spectrum of facilities for older adults - both independent and assisted living, as well as nursing homes. So they come up with recipes to make sure that older adults get proper nutrition, no matter what their challenges are.

SPENCER MUNDY: And that we have some vanilla yogurt, raspberries, peaches.

JAFFE: In Unidine's test kitchen in their Boston headquarters, Chef Spencer Mundy whips up recipes for people who have difficulty eating enough to keep their weight up. It turns out that you can sneak a lot of extra protein and calories into a simple fruit smoothie if you add tofu, yogurt or coconut milk.

MUNDY: And then we'll go ahead and turn that on high.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER)

JAFFE: The smoothies are designed to be a fresh and tastier alternative to the canned supplement drinks you see advertised on TV.

MUNDY: Not too bad, right? No added sugar.

JAFFE: Mundy and Unidine dietitian Jenny Overly also work on coming up with recipes designed for people with dementia or Parkinson's.

JENNY OVERLY: For really anyone that's having issues using utensils, we still want them to be able to enjoy eating and dining and not have to be fed by someone else and still have that dignity piece - that their independent.

JAFFE: Unidine's solution is bite-sized hand food, sort of like having hors d'oeuvres three meals a day. Mundy can get an entire breakfast into one of these things. He starts by putting shredded potatoes into a mini muffin pan.

MUNDY: And then you would put your eggs, bacon, ham in there - a little bit of cheese - and then you'd bake that off. And then it's just a bite-size, all-in-one breakfast.

JAFFE: This kind of service is not just for the well-to-do retiree. Deana Wilson, head of housing for the company that owns Bethlehem Woods and 28 other senior living facilities, says her food costs have not gone up since she hired Unidine.

DEANA WILSON: It is less expensive to buy food and prepare it than to buy it already prepared and warm it up.

JAFFE: For some residents of Bethlehem Woods, this approach to food is what they've always known. For others, the menu is an adventure. Kathleen Lynch says she's not used to food with sauces.

KATHLEEN LYNCH: But I'm getting used to them. I had lasagna yesterday - right? - for the first time, and it was delicious.

JAFFE: No doubt because it was made with fresh ingredients and cooked from scratch. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.