UPMC Children’s Hospital expands kosher, halal offerings
Prescribing changeMenu changes bring welcome dietary additions

UPMC Children’s Hospital expands kosher, halal offerings

"Providing some options and listening to the different populations, I think that’s the goal here.”

UPMC Children’s Hospital Senior Director of Food and Nutrition Evan Isenberg holds two items from the hospital’s expanded kosher and halal offerings. (Photo by David Rullo)
UPMC Children’s Hospital Senior Director of Food and Nutrition Evan Isenberg holds two items from the hospital’s expanded kosher and halal offerings. (Photo by David Rullo)

It’s not often that a business decides to lose money for the good of its customers.

That, though, is exactly what UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh did when decided to increase its kosher and halal offerings for Jewish and Muslim patients and visitors, as well as its staff.

“UPMC Children’s is very understanding. They’re not making money on it,” said Evan Isenberg, the senior director of food and nutrition at the hospital. He is employed by Compass Group-Morrison Healthcare, a third-party food service company.

Children’s, he said, is willing to settle for making 15 to 20 cents on food items, a low margin in the food service business, because profits haven’t been the motivating factor with the menu expansion.

“For most people, they’re already in the hospital,” he said, “so, providing some options and listening to the different populations, I think that’s the goal here.”

Creative Kosher, which had an existing relationship with the hospital, is expanding the kosher choices available. Halal items will be provided by Salem’s Market and Grill, which is something new for UPMC.

Isenberg said that the Strip District eatery was anxious to work with the hospital, even though the orders they place each week will likely be small.

“They want to keep expanding,” he said. “They’re going to come here and do a tasting event once the weather gets warm. I want to get Creative Kosher and Deena [Ross, owner of Creative Kosher] here, as well. We’ll turn our back café into a whole show.”

About 70-80% of the meals bought will be used for patients, with the remainder available in the grab-and-go coolers.

The two sets of dietary laws have different sensitivities, Isenberg explained.

Kosher meals will be double-wrapped by Creative Kosher, for example. While halal doesn’t require the same type of precautions, some facts are helpful to know. For instance, most Muslims break their Ramadan fasts with plain vanilla yogurt and dates.

“It sounds silly, but the number of people who have sent emails saying they’re so happy that we got it in is amazing,” Isenberg said.

After the café closes each night, the front desk will provide the food to visitors at the hospital if needed.

Isenberg is working to offer the same service to the Jewish community.

“When it’s Passover, we’ll do the same with seder kits,” he said. “We’ll sell them in the cafe and make sure we have a few at the front desk for emergency purposes.”

For the food director, the expanded menu has been a learning experience — the need to have Kedem grape juice with a kosher hechsher on it, as opposed to other juice, for instance.

The hospital typically handles about 450 meal tickets a day, Isenberg said. In that period, there might only be three or four families who keep kosher. That means he gets to talk to each of them about their needs.

There are more consumers interested in eating the halal food than the kosher food, Isenberg said, noting that sometimes people with no dietary restrictions will buy it. And, rather than waste leftovers, he said, the hospital donates them to 412 Food Rescue.

Throughout the process, the hospital’s spiritual committee, including Nina Butler, has provided insight. Butler’s input has been “invaluable,” Isenberg said.

Butler said that the committee wanted to find a way to improve the experience for patients and families who observe kashrut and halal. Isenberg, she said, was open to the idea.

“He really wanted to make things better,” she said.

The improved menus began with simple ideas, like more child-friendly choices, Butler said.

“Instead of having only salmon, maybe we have chicken nuggets and things kids like, like french fries,” she said.

It was also important to expand choices in the cafeteria as well because parents can’t easily step outside of the hospital to find kosher or halal food.

The hospital is even supplying refrigerators for patients to store kosher or halal offerings they have bought.

Butler showed Isenberg the various kosher symbols and what they mean.

“By the end, he really knew what to look for,” she said.

In fact, Isenberg discovered that a product like Dannon Yogurt requires extra attention because some varieties have a hechsher and some don’t.

“There’s a learning curve, but he’s so eager to do it,” Butler said. “He’s so eager to do anything he can.”

He’s even worked with Butler to learn about Shabbat packages that he can make available to patient’s families.

Children’s Hospital, Butler said, has been a welcome partner, noting that other hospitals haven’t been as accommodating. All the more reason, she said, Isenberg and his staff have stood out.

“There’s a superstar in town,” Butler said, “who is making these things happen.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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