UCLA Health goes global in its cafeteria offerings

If you have ever eaten in a hospital cafeteria, the meal may have been less than memorable. But new culinary innovations being introduced to the Dining Commons at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center might make you think again about hospital food.

Genesis Robinson, the new administrative director of food and nutrition services at UCLA Health, is spicing things up and adding the flavors of different cultures to the dining fare.

“I did a road map to set goals for food services, and we began to look at how we could align with UCLA Health’s commitment to equity and diversity,” said Robinson.

New foods and new life at the Dining Commons

The new direction kicked off with Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) and featured Spanish-themed entrees and Latin music.

“You could just see the smiles on people’s faces,” said Robinson, adding that food sales were “among the highest we’ve seen in a while.”

To get started, Robinson met with Mikel Whittier, director of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UCLA Health. Together, they discussed new offerings they could feature within the café setting.

“I asked Mikel what if we did an Asian Heritage Month and a Hispanic Heritage Month, and he said that would be perfect,” Robinson recalled.

Working from a calendar of events, she created goals to highlight different cultures throughout the coming year at the Westwood and Santa Monica hospitals.

It takes a lot of planning by the cafeteria chef and Robinson’s culinary team to pull off successful dining events.

“Vinod Mangal, our catering manager, who is of Indian descent, asked me if I would consider doing a Diwali-themed event,” said Robinson. “I got excited about that because I went to a Diwali festival last year and loved it.”

So the week after the Hispanic Heritage Month event ended, Robinson and her team introduced the first Diwali-themed station in the cafeteria. It equaled the success of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Robinson was particularly excited about the event because it offered an opportunity to highlight vegetarian dishes. “When I experience Diwali, all of the items are plant-based, so how amazing is that, to offer food that is flavorful, cultural and meaningful, and that also is in line with our organizational goals for better health and sustainability.”

What’s next on the menu?

Robinson and her staff are preparing for the winter holidays, and beyond.

“We have a theme planned out for the holidays, but it won’t just be with the traditional red and green colors for Christmas. We’ll also have colors to represent Hanukkah,” she said.

After that, on Jan. 20, the food and nutrition services team will host a Chinese New Year event followed by the annual Black History Month festivities in February

Robinson is enthusiastic about the new direction for UCLA Health food and nutrition services.

“As a woman of color, how could I not get behind an organization whose administration is making strides to demonstrate its commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion?” she says. “Food is a gateway that brings people together. I think the more we do, the more engagement we’ll likely see.”

Learn more about food and nutrition services at UCLA Health.