SHN DISHED: Food at the Root of Wellness

This article is sponsored by Gordon Food Service. This article is based on a Senior Housing News discussion with Dana Fillmore, Healthcare Customer Marketing Manager at Gordon Food Service. The discussion took place on June 6, 2023 during SHN DISHED/WELLNESS Conference. The article below has been edited for length and clarity.

Senior Housing News: We know that wellness is multifaceted. Why is it important to include your food and nutrition services in wellness programming? Could you talk a little bit about who’s involved in that planning process?

Dana Fillmore: As a dietitian myself, we know there’s a very well-established connection between food and physical wellness. We also need to recognize that food is connected to the mental and emotional side of wellness. That’s really where we can use food to evoke nostalgia and create a sense of community. Speaking broadly, food is at the root of wellness. If food is at the root of wellness, who better to take a leading role in your wellness programming than your food and nutrition services team?


SHN: Taking action in this space sounds like it could be a big investment. Often the discussion is around big strategic plans. Are there some more nimble or lower-cost investments that providers can start with in this effort?

Fillmore: We’ve heard about some great capital investments like a food truck and new restaurants and even capital investments where you’re redoing your dining room to improve the experience. Those are all great things to do. In fact, I was just reading in a white paper that stated 58% of senior living participants said improved dining options and experience would strengthen their overall satisfaction for the community that they live in. Investing in the dining experience is a great thing to do, but we can’t always do those capital investments.

My goal today is to try to bring some inspiration and motivation to find some of those more nimble things you can do with your food service team to really start building your wellness brand. There are lots of different ideas. I’ve seen a variety of different opportunities in my work at Gordon Food Service, but before you can ask your food service team to jump in and do wellness activities, you first have to make sure the base is good. We have to have standard cost control.


In your food service departments, we know cost management and labor can present issues. I would encourage you to reach out to your foodservice partners to assure you have best practices in place from menu planning to operations, and then start to think about how you can add some food-focused activities that won’t overwhelm your operations team. There are three main areas operators can highlight wellness through food in: meal time, recurring activities, and special activities.

SHN: Social interaction surrounded by delicious food plays well, but as part of wellness, does that eliminate indulgent foods? Can you talk a little bit about that intersection?

Fillmore: When I think of wellness, I think of going on a diet. We relate wellness to eating healthy, and that’s important however not all encompassing. I don’t want to diminish ‘healthy’. There’s a lot of easy things you can do to be healthy, and I’ve seen some really great programs out there. Cedarhurst Senior Living has a program called Crafted by Cedarhurst SM and Trilogy Health Services, LLC has a program called Flavorful Balance. Both are about putting delicious and healthy choices on your menu.

When you’re putting healthy choices on your menu, how do you define healthy? How do the residents define healthy? That’s where choice comes in. In fact, in both the Crafted and Flavorful Balance programs, it’s really about identifying that on your menu. That’s where you can highlight a healthy option.

Let’s think about connecting wellness to more indulgent eating experiences. Remember, we talked about the mental and emotional side of wellness being connected to food. This brings an opportunity to use food to increase social interaction. I’ve seen some great examples. We work with an organization, a vendor called The Father’s Table®, and they sell cheesecake. They share food activity ideas with senior living organizations who purchase their cheesecakes. They have a cheesecake decorating contest for residents. What an easy way to create wellness with an indulgent type of item. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of our residents that need to eat more, and calories won’t hurt them.

In that same example, The Father’s Table happens to be an organization that gives a portion of their profits back to a charity. Then you’re tying in the giving side of that wellness opportunity. Think of the excitement and pride that that might create for residents to be able to tell their friends they participated in a cheesecake decorating contest, and maybe they won. Also, we helped support a charity through the cheesecake that we used for that contest. It’s a great connection to do those together.

In that vein of some more practical ideas to evolve your wellness brand, can you share any other examples of innovative programming that you’ve seen lately with some of your partners?

Has anyone done teaching kitchens? This is so fun. Again, it’s something you can do with not a lot of investment. You can use this in independent living where your residents have their own kitchens and you’re going to teach them to make something more healthy. Maybe it’s a quinoa dish that they don’t know how to make or an Acai bowl. It could be something fun that will help their physical wellness all the way to something more decadent, like a dessert. We’re seeing teaching kitchens pop up in a lot of different places.

Another easy idea, which is really fun, is to work with your food vendor and do a little bit of a “taste of” or a food sampling with your residents. This is a fabulous way to let them try new products. Create a food sampling area that offers an opportunity for them to share their opinion, to try new foods, engage with the community, and feel more belonging? You can use the feedback to guide new offerings on your standard menu.

Can you share any best practices on where to begin if an organization doesn’t historically have a culture of food and wellness around dining?

I will repeat, make sure food service operations are solid from a cost control and labor standpoint and then really build from there. You need to know what your residents want. Listen, attend those resident councils, and understand the little things that your residents want from your food service team. Then start to put some of those ideas together. As little as it may seem, it’s a cheesecake decorating contest, it’s a food sampling, or it could be a chef competition. Consider a theme meal where, for example, you go to Italy virtually, and you have an Italian theme meal.

You start adding those food based activities up between your mealtimes and your regular activities, and maybe a special activity or two, to equal a fabulous lineup focused on wellness. Then tell people about it, market it to current and potential residents. Share what you’re doing. Small things add up to make a big difference, and that’s going to help create and amplify your wellness brand.

A question for you about measuring the effect of these different programs and efforts: What types of ROI metrics or other metrics should providers be tracking or what kind of soft metrics can they look at to just measure the success of the program?

That’s an important one and we want to be good stewards, and make sure everything we do is tied back to a return on investment. I think there’s both hard and soft ways to measure and one is just simply measuring participation in the small activities that you are creating, just getting a baseline of who’s attending, and how many are you getting the next time. If you do have one event and it’s successful, and you schedule another event, be sure to market it and advertise it in between so you can get more people to attend.

What’s trending right now in your experience? What are some of the top things that you’re seeing?

We’re hearing a lot about farm-to-table, fresh and local trends. We would all love to do as much local purchasing as possible, but we realize there are some limitations to purchasing local, depending on where you live regionally and what is in season. Expanding on that trend we hear a lot about residents just wanting to know where their food is coming from – so don’t be afraid to work with your vendor partners on that.

There’s a Midwest group called Attic Angel Community, and they are doing a series of programs where they’re inviting different vendors in. For example, they get their produce from Markon® and are working with Gordon Food Service to showcase Markon produce – it’s as easy as showing video clips of the produce being processed and picked and who’s picking it. They’re able to connect to their food and understand where the food comes from. Even though that’s not local, you’re still building on the idea of helping your residents know where the food is coming from.

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