The first day on the job, Chef Evan Waters announced to the kitchen staff of Bisbee’s Copper Queen Community Hospital (CQCH) that they would be learning to cook. He could almost taste the resistance. “Some of the employees had been there 40 years. They had always done things one way.” And most of what they did involved can openers and prepackaged foods. That was 12 years ago. “The dishwasher back then is head cook today,” he says.
Kitchen workers provided only the first pushback to his makeover of CQCH’s food service. Next came patients, cafeteria customers, and staff demanding their familiar fare. Gradually Waters weaned everyone off foods of questionable nutritional value, like instant mashed potatoes, by introducing similar dishes incorporating “fresh ingredients, made from scratch, organic local produce,” and eventually organic dairy products and organic locally sourced meats. His vision for these healthy meals served to hospital patients, staff, and locals is that “food should do no harm,” he says.
Critical to the success of his vision was the hospital administration. At first, CEO Jim Dickson and the hospital board could not see the advantage in serving patients, staff, and the community meals that needed to be subsidized because of the extra cost for ingredients. But Waters made his case. “If you support the community and bring them into the hospital, then the hospital is not seen as a hostile, scary place to be avoided at all costs,” he says. The community forms a relationship with the facility. “And that’s value added.” In addition to patients and staff, about 250 community members, mostly seniors, eat at the cafeteria on weekdays.
Waters was focused on local food and growing the community’s economy. “I buy from local growers. I buy everything they produce. I want them to be in business. I would let them know what I needed and they would change what they grew to meet the hospital’s needs,” he says.
Waters took a winding road to Bisbee. After culinary school, he worked in a cruise ship kitchen, on the American Orient Express, and in New York helping with the start-up of a private seventh to 12th grade school. The founders were determined to revamp the school cafeteria concept to include teaching sustainability through healthy eating. That experience provided basic training for what he accomplished, and with fewer resources, at CQCH.
Waters is part of a movement taking place in hospitals across America. Nationwide, the Healthier Hospitals Initiative is trying to reduce antibiotics in the human food chain through healthier options in hospital cuisine.
“Fresh foods simply made” is how Waters describes his CQCH revolution. While not everything served is local and organic, that’s the goal.
The longest that Chef Evan has stayed in one place in his career has been in Bisbee. He recently announced he is moving to Tennessee, and he plans to write a manual about the food culture changes he initiated at the hospital. “I’d like to do the same thing I’ve done here, but bigger,” he says.
First, he is making sure his CQCH project continues. The administration has committed itself to sustaining what he has put in place, and Waters has trained the new chef, Charlie Bambulas. Good thing. CQCH cafeteria regulars might resort to mutiny if they can’t get their organic scrambled eggs, organic antibiotic-free locally sourced hamburgers, or made-from-scratch-banana pudding. If you can’t imagine that hospital food can taste great and also be good for you, swing by the Copper Queen Community Hospital cafeteria. ✜
Freelance writer Norah Booth has recently published articles in Fatal Encounters and OccupiedTucsonCitizen.org.