Lee Memorial Health System (LMHS) presents quite a meal production and distribution challenge. The fourth largest public health system in the U.S. with more than 10,000 employees and some 1,200 physicians, it is licensed for more than 1,600 beds across five acute care facilities and two specialty hospitals. The food and nutrition department serves more than five million meals annually.

Despite that volume demand, the meals served to patients and retail customers at LMHS sites are increasingly customized, appealing and health-focused thanks to efficiencies brought about by LMHS’ membership in a multi-system cooperative venture called LeeSar and its Culinary Solutions centralized food production operation.

Housed in the almost new 204,000-sq.ft. LeeSar facility in Ft. Myers that was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the 38,000-sq.ft. Culinary Solutions operation shares space with aisles of soaring warehouse storage racks containing thousands of SKUs slated for redistribution, along with antiseptic cleanrooms where some 700 customized surgical trays a day are assembled, medical equipment is sterilized, pharmaceuticals purchased in bulk are repacked and medical/radiological records are stored.

In one section of this facility, nearly 50 Culinary Solutions staffers turn out 15,000 meal units a day for delivery to LMHS sites with an efficiency and cost-effectiveness no onsite alternative could ever match. This includes 2,700 patient trays and an equal amount of packaged grab-and-go meals, plus bulk products like soups and sauces.

Culinary Solutions also incorporates a bakery that turns out everything from artisan breads and gourmet pastries for catered functions to muffins and cookies for patient trays and retail sales. A floor stock redistribution operation each day delivers over a hundred bins of packaged products to LMHS hospital sites where they are further redistributed across the facility.

Culinary Solutions is also now gearing up to make pre-portioned fresh and frozen meals for senior nutrition programs and therapeutic home meal replacement meals for the new Fresh Harvest @Home program.

Central production at Culinary Solutions allows LMHS hospitals to offer a cost-efficient modified room service program for patients as well as upgrade their café menus and implement the Journey to a Healthier You healthy eating initiative across the system.

The dining program has received solid financial support from LMHS administrators to build the Culinary Solutions infrastructure and significantly renovate retail dining facilities at HealthPark Medical Center and Cape Coral Hospital.

Yet to come: the new Golisano Children’s Hospital complex, planned to open in 2017, which includes a strong investment in the onsite foodservice operation.

Finding Production Efficiencies

The story of LMHS dining’s evolution to its current high-tech “mass customization” food production approach began shortly after Lee Memorial Hospital acquired nearby Cape Coral Hospital in 1998. The move prompted a review of how Lee Memorial ran its support functions.

“I was asked by our vice president of planning to look into consolidating foodservice operations,” recalls Larry Altier, system director of food & nutrition services for LMHS. A study commissioned by the hospital indicated the expanded system could benefit from such a move in a variety of areas.

“We chose to concentrate on foodservice and purchasing/distribution at the beginning,” Altier says. “That meant consolidating food production as much as possible.”

Lee Memorial, which had some excess space, was chosen to host a centralized production kitchen, which soon was producing and distributing 1,700-plus patient meals a day. That system worked well for a number of years, saving the foodservice operation about a million dollars annually.

But in 2006 LMHS acquired two more hospitals, Southwest Regional Medical Center and Gulf Coast Hospital, and the added sites started straining resources.

“Meal counts were going up and the footprint in Lee Memorial was too small to manage the logistics efficiently,” Altier recalls. “We knew we needed to do something to increase capacity.”

That’s when the stars began to align…