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Institutional Dining: Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center



Robert Shearer

The foodservice operation at the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center falls somewhere between hospital and college campus dining, according to Robert Shearer, director of nutrition.

“The standard stay here is 28 days,” he says. “Think about your favorite restaurant and then think about eating there three meals a day for 28 days.” Not quite as appealing, right?

In keeping with the college campus model, Hazelden provides a salad bar, grill and sandwiches, along with two to three choices of entrées, including gluten-free, halal and vegan options. Routinely, there’s a self-service buffet “so we can give staff some time off,” he says. And yes, there’s lots of variety.

Shearer is an employee of Sodexo, the foodservice provider that has the contract for the drug and alcohol rehab center. He’s in charge of three campuses: Center City, the main facility; the Plymouth site that caters to adolescents; and an outpatient facility in St. Paul. “At Plymouth we offer healthy fare, but (patients) are younger and grew up with fast food,” he says, so chicken nuggets, wings and taco day are on their menus.

Staff at the Center City location, include four dietitians, six managers and 53 front-line employees. About 250-plus patients go through two lines in an hour and 10 minutes, three times a day. Patients sit at the same round tables with their home group, so men and women eat separately, as does staff.

The menu is a “working menu.” There are seasonal additions, as well as changes “as we get interesting ideas,” Shearer says.  “We’re 85 percent scratch (cooking) and 15 percent heat and eat.” 

There’s no shortage of food. Patients can go back for seconds and even thirds. In addition to the three meals a day, the living areas have food stocked, such as peanut butter and bread, milk, popcorn, celery sticks. There’s decaf, but no regular coffee in the sleeping areas.

In the dining area and group lounges, however, both regular and decaffeinated coffee are stocked, along with flavor-infused waters and unsweetened tea. There’s a sensitivity to limit sugar intake, since patients are coming off alcohol addiction. But there’s also that other fine line, he points out, where you can’t ask people to give up everything at once. 

As part of the treatment, patients are taught proper nutrition and how to continue healthy habits after they leave the bubble of treatment. “People (in treatment) have been hard on their bodies,” Shearer says, and part of the healing is learning to take care of their nutritional needs. 

That’s one of the reasons desserts are limited to twice a week, and when staff asks for feedback—you guessed it—the most common request is for desserts every day. “We get a lot of compliments—lots of heart cards,” he says. “The staff does a good job at customer service.” And they also try to mix it up so patients don’t get bored with the food, such as celebrating the opening of baseball season with fried pickles and hot dogs. 

While it’s not an everyday occurrence, Shearer says it’s not uncommon to see a late-night pizza delivery. But third-party delivery from restaurants isn’t a trend here for a couple of reasons. One, the facility is out in the country and the nearest big city, Forrest Lake, is still quite a distance, so “not a lot of Grubhubs are around here,” he says; and two, they have to be vigilant to ensure drugs and alcohol aren’t smuggled in via a fake delivery. 

Sysco is their mainline distributor, and they get their produce from Bix, but there are times when they pick up specialty items from other sources, he says. 

Because the patients are from all over and all walks of life, Hazelden tries to accommodate everyone’s palate. “You can tell from my accent I’m not from here. I’m from Houston,” Shearer says. So you’re just as likely to find a Southern breakfast with biscuits and gravy as a tater tots hotdish in the rotation.  We try to keep it interesting, he adds. 

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