How Hennepin Healthcare's Foodservice is Handling COVID-19

William Marks heads up foodservice and environmental measures, such as cleaning operating rooms and patient rooms, at Hennepin Healthcare.

Hennepin Healthcare regularly trains for major incidents. "We’ve trained for some nasty things, but I don’t recall training for a pandemic," William Marks, director of food, nutrition and environmental services at Hennepin Healthcare, says.

Marks was just about to start a ski patrol shift a couple of months ago, when he got the first call from Hennepin’s chief medical officer asking him what-if questions. Marks immediately headed to the hospital where he brought his staff in to start planning for worst-case scenarios.

What do you do if half your staff comes down with the virus? How do you close down your retail operations and still feed the doctors and nurses on duty? How do you extend the life of your limited supply of masks? How do you feed COVID-19 patients while keeping both patients and staff safe?

There were a lot of what-ifs that had to be dealt with, he says, but Hennepin Healthcare has "an incredible command structure" that deals with crisis management with military precision.

"Every day brings on a new challenge," he says. "It’s an amazing time in healthcare; I’m glad I’m experiencing it and another side is that I wish I had retired and was watching this on the sidelines."

In the beginning it was all about planning for the surge. "What if we ended up like New York" was the fear. The first four weeks were spent finding and utilizing space for additional hospital beds and tracking down needed equipment and supplies.

Ironically, those makeshift hospital wards directly impact food delivery. "A new area doesn’t have room numbers," he says, "so we have to figure out how to get food to them."

In addition, there was a constant flow of directives from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). "That was tough, dealing with the changes," Marks says. "We knew if you made a change, it would be changed—you’d make changes to the changes. The CDC was learning, too."

Departments with employees who could work from home, such as finance, stayed home. "I allow my managers to work from home one day a week, but I run a kitchen, and you can’t cook from home," Marks says.

The next step was non-frontline workers started wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The actions aren’t second nature yet. "Seven weeks later, I still see people too close," he grouses. "It took weeks to beat into people’s heads, make sure it (your mask) is over your nose."

One of foodservice’s first assignments was to close the retail operation. Since guests were no longer allowed inside the building to visit patients, the main dining room was streamlined to a rotating schedule of pre-made salads and sandwiches. They may be pre-packaged, Marks says, but they’re not ordinary. "We’re making spectacular salads, four different salads, and charging reasonable prices," he said, adding, "This is not a time to make money off of anyone, especially staff." They’ve since added two kinds of pre-portioned soups and chili.

"Though we sure miss the innovation station—the tikka masala and pot sticker, it really is great that the cafeteria is doing what they’re doing to stay open for the staff," said

Erica Monroe, a physician assistant, may miss the tikka masala and the toasted cheese sandwiches hot off the grill, but sees the new version of the cafeteria as a bright spot in the day. "Even though we can’t sit and eat/socialize, the routine of walking to the cafeteria to pick up lunch is still there, and it’s nice to have that piece of normalcy amidst a changed hospital and quieter hallways (with no visitors)," she said. "I’ve seen and heard many staff talking about the cafe/market, and walking away with a bag of take-home staples."

The market was another one of Marks innovations.

"I was the designated person to food shop at home," he explains. "I was PPE’d up pretty good. My wife gave me this list, which had paper towels and toilet paper on list and there was nothing there. Cleaning supplies were wiped out." The next day at work he asked their suppliers if they could order extra items to stock an employee store with.

Employees no longer have to worry about not being able to find essential items, like toilet paper and gallons of milk for their families, "plus it keeps staff out of stores," Marks adds.

"When I first spotted the rolls of toilet paper, I thought it was a funny joke," Monroe says. "But then I noticed the milk, eggs, butter, sliced cheese, and boxes of vegetables and fruit. While the fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies are sadly missing, I still bought one wrapped in plastic wrap, and instead of a single-size milk, I bought a gallon of milk to bring home. I also bought a $26 box of produce."

The surge hasn’t hit yet, but that doesn’t mean that every day Hennepin isn’t preparing for it, as well as for the day they reopen their retail operation.

"What we’re going through is what every hospital is going through," Marks says. Everyone is struggling with what foodservice will look like post COVID-19. There are big decisions and smaller ones like: Pump-style condiments versus individual packages, and are they in a basket or handed out by the cashier? And can they go back to the way it was, or doesn’t food still need to be packaged in some way when it’s placed on a tray?

"Let’s see what the fast-food folks do, they’re smart," he said, adding, "It’s a crazy time."

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