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Changing Retirement Community Food Service Options

By Rick Dobrowski, Director, Arbor Acres Dining Arts

It was not so long ago that retirement community food service operations were run very similarly to the operations at nursing homes and hospitals. In fact, in 2008 when I first set foot in a retirement community kitchen they were serving commercially frozen macaroni & cheese from aluminum freezer pans. Fast forward to today, times have changed. Residents demand menu items that are prepared fresh daily. Our kitchen operations now run like a fine-tuned local restaurant. Unfortunately, the local and state run health inspection agencies continue to lump our independent community kitchens in with nursing homes and hospitals, which has begun to create issues with increasingly discerning resident food requests and preferences. It’s time to take some action.


Arbor Acres’ Beef Tenderloin

I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion with the North Carolina Department of Human & Health Service. Tom Akins, LeadingAge North Carolina’s President, set-up this opportunity to meet with DHHS representatives to discuss the growing needs for change in the way retirement community food service operations and kitchens are being inspected by county health inspectors. The DHHS oversees the different health inspection agencies throughout North Carolina.

Salem Suber (Food & Beverage Director at Charlotte’s Southminster retirement community) and I teamed up in Raleigh to discuss with state officials the topic of our food service operations being lumped into the healthcare category. One example we addressed is the differences in the way each county’s agency scores the inspections. For example, Forsyth County’s health inspectors allow Arbor Acres to prepare medium-rare steaks for the residents within our independent living areas.  In Mecklenburg County, recent health inspectors penalized Southminster for the same practice.  In the context of our discussion, the committee agreed these inconsistencies are unfair and they wanted to learn more about the differences.

The DHHS committee educated Salem and I about North Carolina food codes & regulations that pertain to healthcare food service operations. We also had the chance to educate the area representatives about the differences between health care operations, such as a hospital, and retirement communities.  This allowed us to draw parallels to our menus and the ones at local restaurants. A large percentage of the committee hadn’t ever visited a retirement community kitchen, so they were very enlightened by these facts. At the end of the meeting the DHHS committee agreed they would take another look at the wording within specific food codes. The committee expressed interest in cleaning up the “gray areas” which currently allow differences between counties.

Our hope is state officials will eventually consider revising the regulations allowing independent areas within retirement communities to be regulated more local restaurants so we can better serve resident requests and preferences.  We plan to revisit with DHHS officials during the Dining Service Symposium at the LeadingAge State Conference in Pinehurst next year.


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