Bryan Health pushes to use locally-sourced foods

Justin Carter contributed to this blog.

The idea of a large institution using local foods to supplement their day-to-day meal services sounds next to impossible.

But, it’s not.

Lincoln, Nebraska, is home to Bryan Health, a 550-bed, nonprofit, locally owned, health care organization that serves patients throughout Nebraska, as well as parts of Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, and other states in the region.

They also source 18 to 20 percent of their food locally.

Mike Dixon, currently the director of nutrition and dining services at Bryan Health, believes there are benefits to purchasing and supporting local foods.

“When you’re trying to heal patients, food is medicine,” said Mike. “Local, healthy meals can decrease re-admittance. The American Heart Association and cardiologists have made recommendations for what hospitals should feed patients. There is a spectrum—you have to please customers but also bring in healthy foods.”

Mike, and Bryan Health’s executive chef, Nazim Khan, are working toward finding that balance.

Locally-sourced options, such as locally-roasted coffee, are used as much as possible, including a rotating set of brands like Cultiva, The Mill, Mark Ferrari Coffee, and Arbor Day Coffee. Lone Tree Foods, a wholesaler out of Lincoln, is able to supply foods to Bryan Health out of season, which Mike says is a big benefit.

“They have spinach and microgreens all the time,” Mike said. “Specialty salads are very popular—folks will stand in line for it, and say it’s the highlight of their week. We also get the chance to serve some unique foods such as jícama and pine heart.”

Finding creative ways to prepare and serve these foods is where Chef Nazim comes in. His 22 years of culinary experience has given him plenty of ideas to work with.

“If you can sell the story of the veggies, people love it,” said Nazim. “Sell the farmers to the customers, tell their story—make that connection with the customers.”

A member of the Nebraska Food Council and a longtime supporter of using local foods in his cooking, Chef Nazim readily takes on any challenge that’s thrown his way to make the collaboration between large institutions and local eating work smoothly.

“Yes, it’s a hospital, but we’re still serving food, why not use locally-sourced?” said Nazim. “I like to learn, I’m hungry to do the best. I’m not scared of cooking—a good chef shouldn’t be scared of a challenge, they should love to cook and use the resources they have, along with asking other chefs for advice if they’re stuck on something. A good chef needs to be involved—a chef with no passion for food is not in the right place.”

Justin Carter, project associate with the Center for Rural Affairs and coordinator with the Nebraska Food Council, says Chef Nazim’s approach is exactly what other organizations should be striving toward.

“Promoting local foods and supporting markets for our local producers is a key motivator of the Nebraska Food Council,” said Justin. “Bryan Health is helping provide that market. Last August, Chef Nazim hosted a Nebraska Food Council meeting at Bryan Health where he prepared an exquisite meal made from local foods. Chef Nazim's attitude toward local responsibly sourced foods is the culture we would like to create around the state.”

Mike and Chef Nazim’s goals overall are to reduce the carbon footprint, increase nutritional density, and support local communities, all while controlling expenses.

“If we can keep control of costs, we want to support local commercial endeavors,” said Mike. “And, if we can provide a higher quality product for our patients and customers, that’s a win.”

And, they’re not just serving local food, they’re supporting it, too. When local options are offered, promotional materials on producers will be hung up around the Bryan Health facility, and they’re working on creating digital content for this purpose to be published on a regular basis.

Chef Nazim and Mike also participate at local farmer markets by doing chef demos and talking through recipes with people.

“I like to talk to people,” said Nazim. “I talk to them about the veggies, how to prepare them, different ways to use them—I’m committed and dedicated to highlight produce and farmers in new, interesting ways.”

Their vision does not come without challenges, though Chef Nazim feels strongly that, with the right approach, it can work successfully.

“It’s doable to use fresh veggies, but expensive,” he said. “As a chef, there’s always room for fresh items no matter how you prepare things. Keep them organized, and buy only what you need local so it doesn’t go bad and cause waste. You can do fresh cooking anywhere if you do it right.”

And, whether it’s serving those at Bryan Health or promoting local growers and producers, Chef Nazim’s outlook remains positive for the future.

“It’s such a privilege to be able to serve our patients, their families, and our hospital staff here at Bryan,” said Nazim. “Food makes people happy. And as a Nebraska Food Council member, my input is to support and showcase local farmers with fundraisers—put chefs in action. When people can visualize the produce—see, touch, and feel it—it educates people and opens their eyes to trying different options.”

Feature photo: Chef Nazim gives a thumbs up. | Photo courtesy of Bryan Health.