Visitors and staff in some Jefferson University Hospital buildings can now enjoy fresh salads with arugula, mushrooms, Israeli couscous, or smoked salmon — even when it’s 3 a.m. and there’s nobody around to make them.

The salads, plus add-ons like organic chicken as well as desserts, are available through Jefferson’s new partnership with Simply Good Jars, a West Philadelphia company that sells ready-to-eat fresh meals and snacks in reusable jars. The meals are stored in “smart refrigerators” with sensors that detect what is purchased. Customers buy food by swiping a credit card, then return the jars.

The jars are available in four Jefferson locations — 925 Chestnut St., the Gibbon Building at 11th and Chestnut, the Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience at 900 Walnut St., and Jefferson Methodist Hospital at 2301 S. Broad St. — but administrators hope to add more in the future. It’s the first hospital partnership for Simply Good Jars, which also can be found in a growing number of local office buildings and food courts.

“In a hospital setting, when it’s late at night, you’re under stress, it’s nice to be able to go to a vending machine and have those choices," said Stephanie Conners, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Jefferson Health.

A new healthy vending machine is next to a soda machine in the Jefferson University Hospital cafeteria.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A new healthy vending machine is next to a soda machine in the Jefferson University Hospital cafeteria.

Increasingly, hospitals in the region and around the country are focusing on healthy food, and not just for patients. In 2014, the City of Philadelphia partnered with the American Heart Association and the regional food distributor Common Market to launch Philadelphia’s “Good Food, Healthy Hospitals” challenge, which called on hospitals to adopt standards in cafeteria meals, patient meals, catering, and vending machines.

The 18 hospitals that participated have since made changes like reducing access to soda (in the case of Penn Medicine, eliminating all sugared drinks from facilities), hosting farm stands, and launching community programs.

Temple University Hospital removed soda from patient menus, and executive chef Jeff Klova works with the Common Market to ensure that fresh produce and antibiotic-free chicken are regular menu items. Klova is using more whole grains like quinoa, which he said have been well-received by patients. Desserts are replaced with fruit when possible, like fresh pineapple served with toasted coconut. Klova makes his own croutons and salad dressing instead of relying on high-sodium processed versions.

Temple is also collaborating with the Drexel Food Lab of the Center for Food and Hospitality Management at Drexel University, which recently developed a low-sodium hoagie roll that the hospital plans to add to patient menus.

At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the challenges of feeding small patients are complex, according to Jennifer Thorpe, CHOP’s director of clinical nutrition. Children who are sick may not want to eat, and the hospital is dealing with a growing number of allergies; several hundred are currently recognized by CHOP.

The hospital works with the Common Market and food service provider Aramark to balance comfort food like macaroni and cheese with nutritional meals, Thorpe said. In recent years the hospital developed menus for long-term patients who need more variety, and started offering healthy snacks for patients, such as yogurt, berries, and granola that can be eaten separately or turned into a parfait.

Similar snacks are also available for hospital staff and visitors, such as packages with nuts and cheese, or apple slices packed into box lunches instead of a cookie.

“They’re sweet, cold, and everybody loves them,” Gary Donnelly, director of food and nutrition for Aramark, said of the apples.

Jefferson's Nourish'd food truck, parked near 10th and Spruce Streets.
Jefferson's Nourish'd food truck, parked near 10th and Spruce Streets.

Many health systems are finding more ways to connect city residents with healthy food beyond hospital walls. Temple’s Farm to Families program provides low-cost produce boxes for North Philadelphia residents. In January CHOP opened a “food pharmacy” to help food-insecure families, similar to a program at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. CHOP is also one of several local hospitals that operates a farm stand on its campus during the summer.

In 2015, administrators at Jefferson’s Frankford Hospital location planted a garden that each year yields hundreds of pounds of produce that is distributed to community members. Jefferson also has a food truck, Nourish’d, that sells made-to-order healthy food to students and at community events.

Donnelly, of CHOP, said offering brief surveys to patients, visitors, and anyone else who eats the food has been a useful way to develop palatable healthy options. The hospital changes the menu every few months based on that feedback.

“If someone says, ‘Too much kale,’ OK, we take that into consideration," Donnelly said.