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By Todd Lindsay
In assisted living food service, there are few trends having a greater impact on resident dining than “culture change.” More than just a catchphrase, culture change is transforming how assisted living communities deliver resident care to a new, more empowered generation of seniors who want more variety and a better lifestyle.
The focus is on resident satisfaction and well-being. In a word, it’s about “choice.”
In senior dining food management, that means giving residents the choice to eat where, when and what they want; serving their favorite recipes; offering a variety of global cuisines and gluten-free options; cooking with locally-sourced foods; and providing more opportunities to socialize and celebrate special occasions with food.
Research shows that the benefits of culture change are many and include higher occupancy rates, increased staff retention and decreased staff absenteeism. That’s not to mention the competitive advantages that are gained when happy, engaged residents speak positively about their assisted living experience with friends and family members.
Despite these positive outcomes, many senior long-term care communities find it challenging to fully embrace culture change—particularly when it comes to assisted living dining. Many don’t have the in-house regulatory and culinary talent to plan and document a compliant, well-rounded senior dining program.
Another roadblock includes a shrinking supply of qualified hourly and management employees, requiring assisted living communities to do more with less.
Nonetheless, regulations from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) now mandate informed choice in long-term care communities. As staffing and resources become more scarce, this will cause many assisted living communities to increasingly rely on outsourcing for critical operations such as cafeteria management.
With the right provider, outsourcing food management better positions communities to fully realize the advantages of culture change. These include:
Despite the advantages of outsourcing and challenges of go-it-alone culture change, assisted living communities have been slower than public- and private-sector companies to move to outsourced food service models.
This will change as Baby Boomers become more entrenched in senior communities — bringing with them their high expectations for richer, more varied experiences in senior dining and all aspects of resident life. More senior dining providers will emerge to satisfy the demand.
In this evolving market, what factors should senior resident and long-term care communities consider when looking to outsource dining services to a food management company?
Cultural Alignment Is Priority #1
The most important consideration is management approach and culture. If your goal is to support culture change, you want to look at companies that take a hospitality-driven approach to food service management. The bottom line: Resident satisfaction and wellness fill beds and drives positive financial results — not the other way around.
To get an authentic picture of a food management company’s culture, tour other long-term care communities where the provider’s been operating for some time. You’ll get the most accurate impression by visiting communities where the resident population and culture shares similarities with your organization.
Pay special attention to the composure and professionalism of the culinary and hospitality staff. Do they interact with residents in a warm, yet respectful manner? Do they exude confidence and efficiency as they go about their tasks?
What about the residents? Are they engaged with others and the food? Do they appear comfortable approaching the management staff?
Also, take note of the setting and ambiance. Does the dining area have an inviting feel? Is it tastefully decorated as well as clean, well-lit and safe? Does the food look fresh? What attention is given to food presentation? If you see residents lingering to socialize, take that as a good sign!
Ask Detailed Questions
Your site tour validates the offerings and unique value propositions presented during the proposal phase. Typically, this includes meetings with the food service provider’s senior management and other key personnel such as the registered dietitian, onsite manager and the culinary team.
Prior to your meeting, provide the vendor with all the information they need to develop an accurate proposal. These figures should include your annual food budget, how much catering you expect to do — and, if your senior dining operation will be all or partly staffed by your own employees — pay rates and insurance requirements among other data. Be sure to ask questions about:
Finally, rule out any assisted living food service provider that doesn’t request a tour of your kitchen and dining facilities. Having access to the right equipment and a healthy, hazard-free environment are essential not only to compliance, but also to creating an engaging environment where quality and choice can thrive.