Hospitals set up grocery stores, offer takeout meals for employees during pandemic

April – May, 2020

May 5, 2020

Catholic hospital employees around the country are happily adding a new item to their at-work checklist: picking up groceries.

In addition to prepackaged foods, CHI Health hospitals sell basic grocery store items for the convenience of staff. Orders can be picked up in hospital kitchens or curbside.

To make their employees' lives easier and safer during the COVID-19 pandemic, some hospitals are opening mini grocery stores. Some provide the convenience of online ordering and others have added basic grocery items for pickup to their cafeteria shelves. Many offer takeout meals such as pizza and chicken pot pie along with staples like milk and eggs — and hard-to-find toilet paper.


Nebraska-based CHI Health began offering employees of CUMC-Bergan Mercy in Omaha the opportunity to purchase groceries and meals through work in mid-April, then expanded the program to nine more hospitals.

Helping employees stay out of grocery stores cuts back on the possibility of their being exposed to COVID-19, according to Terri Hill, CHI's division director of nutrition and patient food services. The health care system also launched the program because its doctors, nurses and other medical providers — along with non-medical staff who still work inside hospitals — are under enormous pressure right now and need a break.

Pizzas made by Chef Rick Wessling in the kitchen at CUMC-Bergan Mercy in Omaha, Nebraska, are among take home meals available for purchase by staff.

"We wanted to do something to give back, to provide a service to take that stress off of all the employees," Hill said.

CHI Health staff who place their orders through an online portal by 5 p.m. can pick them up in the hospital kitchen or at curbside beginning at 6:30 a.m. The cost comes out of their paychecks. Baked goods, mashed potatoes and meat sauces for pizzas and other dishes are prepared at the organization's main kitchen at CUMC-Bergan and shipped in refrigerated containers to other hospitals. CHI Health orders its basic grocery-store fare from its regular food supplier.

CHI Health provides online ordering for groceries employees pick up in its hospitals.

From the outset, employees rushed to take advantage of the new food services. By 9 a.m. on the morning it expanded to include 10 hospitals, 50 people had already submitted their orders.

"It's been wildly popular," Hill said.

'A ton of food'
The grocery and take-out service has been a godsend for Tamara Field, director of inpatient care at CHI Health Midlands Hospital in Papillion, Nebraska. After the pandemic began, Field had to keep longer hours. In late March, as her hospital prepared to receive 17 nursing home patients who'd been exposed to COVID-19, she worked 12 hour-days including weekends. Dinner was often fast food from a drive-through.


The first day the hospital's grocery service became available at her hospital, Field placed her order: a lasagna dinner for four including salad and garlic bread, and a beef roast.

"It was a ton of food and I could barely carry it," Field said. "I had to put it in a wheelchair and roll it to my car."

Field plans to keep using the service. Besides the quality of the food, she likes the convenience, the safety of avoiding stores and the benefit to the hospital's cafeteria staff during a slowdown brought about by the pandemic.

"We've had to cut down our cafeteria hours and our catering," Field said. "This keeps our employees working."

Maintaining employment for food service workers was a priority for CHI Health's parent company, Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, when it began establishing its pop-up grocery stores. In one month, the health care system, which operates 137 hospitals in 21 states, turned 38 cafeterias into grocery stores. It plans to revamp nine more in the coming weeks.

An employee stocks groceries at a pop-up store for employees of Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital & Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Employees walk into CommonSpirit hospitals' makeshift stores, pick out what they want and pay for it on the spot. At the system's Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital & Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, 1,000 people use the service every day.

Like decision-makers at other hospital organizations, those at CommonSpirit also set up their grocery stores to show their appreciation for doctors, nurses and other staff during the pandemic, according to Deisell Martinez, food and nutrition services system leader for CommonSpirit's Dignity Health group.


"Watching them work, watching them struggle, we found ourselves asking, 'What can we do?'" Martinez said. "It was important to us to help them as an act of human kindness," Martinez said, perhaps alluding to Dignity Health's long running "Hello humankindness" initiative.

What happens post-pandemic?
Colorado-based SCL Health, which operates hospitals in Colorado, Montana and Kansas, is making 10 basic grocery items available to employees of seven of its eight hospitals. One of them, Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton, Colorado, offers its staff an expanded list of 30 items and a takeout menu. Employees at each facility place their orders using an email generated by the health care system. More than 600 had used the service as of late April.


Even so, in-hospital grocery stores aren't a panacea for overworked employees. As much as hospital leaders would like to, they can't possibly provide everything their staff needs during the pandemic, according to Katie Boemecke, SCL's system director of service excellence.

"It's more about getting the essentials," Boemecke said. "It's not intended to provide everything on an entire grocery list."

Employees can pick up essential food items at SCL Health's Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton, Colorado.

But the ability to choose from even a limited list has been so well-received by employees that SCL and CommonSpirit leaders are considering keeping groceries on hand for employees after the pandemic, even though neither SCL nor most CommonSpirit hospitals are making money on the endeavor.

The two organizations are also thinking about a couple of new twists on the concept. SCL officials are considering having basics like milk and eggs available for patients and their families to purchase on their way home after discharge. CommonSpirit leaders are mulling over a grocery delivery service to home health care patients as well as staff.

"I think we can see ourselves staying in this business and potentially growing it," Boemecke said.



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