VA Maryland Health Care System
Public Service: Food Service
Public Service comes in many forms, and food service represents just one of the vital and meaningful careers that government workers perform that might not be that visible. Public Service Week—May 5-11— is dedicated to honoring the men and women who serve our nation as government employees. Since we all share the need to eat, the VA Maryland Health Care System is recognizing some of those behind-the-scenes employees. Food is a universal thing that has the power to bring people together, regardless of cultural differences. Food nourishes us all and brings joy, especially to those who are preparing it for others. Ask the three new cooks who have brought their culinary prowess to the Community Living Centers at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center. Because Nutrition and Food Service at the VA Maryland Health Care System is committed to creating a home like environment with its enhanced dining programs, it has launched a cadre of initiatives that align with its goals for Veteran-centered care, and the three new cooks are part of this approach.
“Enhanced dining gives our residents a few options when choosing their meals,” said Sue James, assistant chief of the Nutrition and Food Services, noting that the department has embraced a more whole and fresh foods approach to food preparation system-wide.
For Robert Smith, 35, a Marine Veteran, and Edward “Eddie” Griffin, 58, a Navy Veteran, both who cooked in the military, and Samuel Dates, 46, the son of a Veteran, the joy of cooking for others—especially when those others are Veterans--makes it a labor of love. The trio join John Bain, who worked at both the Perry Point and Baltimore VA Medical Center kitchens before coming to Loch Raven in May 2014. The four work hard to serve fresh, whole gourmet-level meals to the 75 inpatients at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center, where 200 meals are served daily.
“The addition of the three cooks will allow us to prepare foods at Loch Raven that caters to the Veterans’ personal preferences for all meals. It allows us to offer Veterans a choice in the dining room,” said Sharon Goldstraw, a registered dietitian who oversees Food Operations at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center.
In a survey, Veterans indicated that what would most improve their satisfaction with the meals served at Loch Raven was having a choice in entrees and desserts. “Having a choice exceeded dining room appearance, tablecloths, placemats, and other types of service,” said Goldstraw. Armed with the survey data, Goldstraw and her team launched changes, offering Veterans a choice of entrees and desserts, and improving the delivery of meals served in the dining room.
“It gives me great satisfaction to interact with the Veterans who are eating a meal I prepared. I always ask them for ways to improve so I can give them what they want,” said Smith, a Pennsylvania native who joined the Marines just after high school to learn how to cook. “I always wanted to cook. I just had to cook,” said Smith whose first kitchen duties involved preparing food for 3,000-4,000 Marines at Camp LeJeune. “When you’re cooking for that many people, you work in teams with each team focused on a different aspect of the meal,” he said.
At the Loch Raven VA Medical Center, he’s cooking for a much smaller number of diners, allowing him to bring more creativity to his recipes. “I’m working hard to improve the dining experience for the residents here at Loch Raven VA by increasing the diner options and working with the team and the dietitians to expand the recipes of tasty and nutritional choices.”
Fellow cook Griffin learned how to cook in the Navy and worked in the galley aboard the USS Raleigh. “I didn’t want to be a cook at first, even though I was exposed to cooking at home with my mother and grandmother. When I looked at the piece of paper with the listing of the jobs, I saw dental hygienist and cook. Being a cook sounded a whole lot better to me than being a dental hygienist. At least I knew a little something about cooking,” he said.
After his discharge from the Navy, Griffin worked in various kitchens around the Baltimore metro area before beginning his VA career at the Perry Point VA Medical Center. He recently transferred to the Loch Raven VA Medical Center where he tries to apply all his experience as a cook to help bring the Veteran residents a greater variety of foods to enjoy. In his recipe repertoire is an updated version of beef stew with biscuits made from scratch.
“I like taking typical ingredients and combining them in ways that are new and different,” he said.
Smith and Griffin find that cooking for fellow Veterans represents a continuation of their service, ensuring that Loch Raven residents receive restaurant quality meals.
Although not a Veteran, Sam Dates’ father served in Vietnam, and he takes his responsibilities as a team member at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center very seriously. With experience in local restaurants, Dates brings vegetarian sensibilities to the food service at Loch Raven by focusing on options that include ingredients like kale and quinoa and other chopped vegetables not usually found in institutional environments. He floated the idea of serving a fruit smoothie that became a popular and requested item.
“I love cooking for Veterans and work hard to get it right,” he said. “I’m an unconventional cook and enjoy the art and creativity of exploring options. For instance, I can serve a fresh filet of mahi mahi over ramen, or a Pittsburgh steak with spiraling sweet potatoes. A kitchen is my blank canvas and the ingredients, coupled with some imagination, my tools.”
Despite different backgrounds and culinary approaches, the cooks at Loch Raven have grown into a cohesive team, working to ensure that Veterans can have fresh, whole food options, with updated recipes.
“Each cook has their own style of cooking, and I have worked with each of them to develop menu items that they enjoy making,” Goldstraw said. “When a cook has some input to the recipe and the food they serve, it allows them to showcase their very best products. When this happens, the cook is proud to serve the meals, and Veterans receive the very best the cook can offer.”These cooks are among the more than 3,000 employees who work at the VA Maryland Health Care System who bring their skills and dedication to serving our Veterans and our nation.