Choosing an Assisted Living Food Service Company to Cultivate Culture Change in Long-Term Care

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Photo of an assisted living food service employee with seniors

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.

Culture Change Through Outsourcing

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.

Benefits of Outsourcing Assisted Living Food Service

With the right provider, outsourcing food management better positions communities to fully realize the advantages of culture change. These include:

  • Lower food costs: Volume purchasing contracts give food management companies bulk buying power, generating food cost savings they pass on to your community.
  • Higher operational efficiencies: Outsourcing food service purchasing and employee recruitment, training, benefits management and scheduling leads to substantial savings in administrative time and human resource costs—and fewer service interruptions from unplanned gaps in coverage.
  • Superior service: A comprehensive senior dining company will have the resources to provide ongoing employee development and training. A well-trained staff with up-to-date knowledge of regulations, safety and food quality standards, and all aspects of senior dining improves the quality of service you deliver residents.
  • Reduced risk: Keeping up with the confusing web of food management regulations and safety standards has become overwhelming for short-staffed assisted living communities — especially with the expectation to deliver individualized services. Working with a knowledgeable, food management company with a track record in senior dining reduces the liabilities inherent in high-risk work environments, as well as potential noncompliance costs.
  • Better outcomes: Safe, professionally trained employees with competitive benefits and pay are more skilled, more motivated and more committed to building a career of service to your residents. Happy employees lead to happier residents — and more positive outcomes for the community.

What to Look for In an Senior Dining Company

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:

  • Company background — including history, mission and core values as well as years of experience, locations, management bios and organization chart.
  • Differentiators — What distinguishes the food management company from competitors and how will these factors impact service quality at your organization?
  • Resources — Ask about food quality standards, use of green products and processes, and relationships with local, regional and national suppliers.
  • Culinary Offerings — Request descriptions of food service plans including sample menus for the dining room and catering; special promotions; and options for special diets.
  • Organizational Development — Ask for information on the food management company’s employee training and career development programs, emergency and disaster response plans, and food safety and compliance training procedures.
  • Lifestyle and Wellness Programming — Learn how the assisted living food management company implements employee health and wellness and sustainable eating programs. Sample promotional calendars will give you a sense for how the provider approaches resident engagement.

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.