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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Hurricane Ike Doesn't Slow Down Food Service Workers at VA

September 29, 2008

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Nutrition & Food Service workers at VA prepare meals during Hurricane Ike.
Photo by: Deborah Williams


HOUSTON - As Hurricane Ike took aim at the Texas Gulf Coast, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) went into emergency preparedness mode.  A vital part of that preparation is ensuring all 430 inpatients continue to receive healthy, nutritious meals.

Because of the possibility of losing commercial power, the Diet Communications Center printed the meal plans, which included the name and diet requirements, for each inpatient.  Nutrition & Food Service (NFS) worked from there.  Several days of food supplies had already been ordered, stocked, and were ready for preparation.

NFS supervisors excused employees who were scheduled for duty on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  This allowed the weekend staff to be rested and available to return to duty on Monday to relieve those who had sheltered in place.

MEDVAMC did lose power in the early hours Saturday morning; however, NFS staff continued to work with great confidence knowing they could still provide the best service possible to veterans.  Even though everyone silently worried about their homes, family, and communities, the morale was high and everyone had a positive attitude.

“The staff unified as one team to serve our veterans.  Job titles ceased to exist and everyone became an active food service worker,” said Ken Blakes, acting chief, Food Production & Service.

“Our emergency plan is to provide two meals per day.  With outstanding support and team work, we maintained our three meals per day along with an afternoon and evening snack.  We also surprised everyone by providing a hot meal even though we were on generator power,” said Darcie Asakura, administrative dietitian.

Typically, the food is plated cold and placed into food carts. The carts are then plugged into a heat retherm module.  The module heats food on the hot side and cools food on the cold side.  Without electrical power, the heat retherm modules could not be used.

Relying on their ingenuity and creativity, a plan was developed to prepare and deliver a hot evening meal.  NFS staff met and practiced an assembly line process.  “We turned this bad situation into a training opportunity,” said Blakes.

The two cooks on duty heated food using emergency power and the assembly line began.  The hot food was plated using Styrofoam plates. It was delivered, along with a separate cart containing water and juice, unit by unit by NFS staff using elevators on generator power.  A coffee cart was transported to each unit a little later.

“Even though it took a little longer to get the meals to the patients, it gave them time to eat at a more leisurely pace.  Many patients expressed their surprise at our ability to maintain normal food service of three meals and even provide a hot evening meal under these trying circumstances,” said Blakes.

“We were a family.  Even though it was pretty hot in the kitchen, everyone kept their cool, chipped in and did whatever it took to ensure we took care of our veterans.  We impressed ourselves by being able to deliver a hot meal on emergency power,” said Maxine Banks, cook.  “The kitchen is located in the basement with no windows.  We all felt a little isolated.  Our supervisors were great.  Not only did they keep us informed on what was going on at the hospital, weather conditions and what was expected of us, but they made sure we were getting rest and nourishment.  I’m very glad to have had this opportunity to serve our veterans.”                                                      

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