RALEIGH — Folks queued up Tuesday morning in the Rex Hospital cafeteria for free samples of baked seasoned potato wedges.
That was the hospital's way of breaking the news to employees that the cafeteria's deep-fat fryers will be removed this spring. Rex is joining hospitals across the nation in practicing the good health habits that they preach by eliminating all fried foods from its menus for both patients and employees.
In recent years, hundreds of the nation's hospitals have banned smoking. A few have stopped serving trans fats and sugar-sweetened beverages. In North Carolina, Rex is the first to stop serving fried food, from chicken nuggets to onion rings.
"This is the first hospital that we know of in the Southeast and certainly in North Carolina to get rid of their fryers," said Anne Thornhill, a senior health promotion manager at N.C. Prevention Partners, which has pushed hospitals to provide healthier food options. "It really shows they are putting their mission first."
The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio was one of the first. The clinic first eliminated trans fats in 2006, then moved on to fried foods, whole milk, sugar-sweetened beverages and high-fructose corn syrup, said Bill Barum, senior director of hospitality services. One benefit, Barum said, is a healthier work force; the clinic's more than 8,000 employees have shed more than 260,000 pounds since the changes began.
In the Triangle, Duke Hospital has committed to excluding fryers in new cafeterias, including the cafes at the Duke Cancer Center that opens next month and the Duke Medicine Pavilion, which will open next year.
Rex removed fried foods from patient menus a year ago before making this change in the cafeteria. On Tuesday Jim McGrody explained the changes to the hospital's 5,200 employees.
McGrody is the hospital's director of culinary and nutrition services. He has put much effort into elevating the hospital's food by training his staff to cook from scratch instead of relying on canned or frozen foods. As people tasted the seasoned-to-order baked potato wedges with gourmet dipping sauces, from chipotle ketchup to jalapeno ranch, McGrody gave his spiel about the eventual transition to no fried foods, starting with Fryerless Fridays.
Starting Friday, the french fries and chicken tenders will be replaced by the baked potato wedges and entrees such as lime-glazed salmon with marinated green beans or a pork chop basted with a low-sodium barbecue sauce served with grilled peaches and arugula. When the fryers are replaced by convection ovens in two months, the changes will become permanent.
The potato wedges, in such flavors as Thai chile and Sonoran with ground chile peppers and jalapeno, were well-received Tuesday by most who sampled them.
"I'm actually surprised ... we were all really skeptical," said Jen Pope, a nurse in Rex's heart catheterization lab who admits she and her co-workers enjoy an onion-ring fix when working until 2 a.m.
But Pope was swayed by her taste buds and believes it's the right thing to do.
"You can't be a hospital and be serving things that are dangerous," she said. "If we are going to be committed to people's health, we need to be all the way around."
Not every one was persuaded. As McGrody explained the end of fried foods in the cafeteria, Kim Crews, a medical technician, exclaimed, "What? You are trying to regulate what we eat?"
McGrody responded: "I'm going to make a believer out of you."
But neither the dill pickle wedges nor the parmesan and rosemary wedges won over Crews, who scrunched her nose in disgust. Later, she explained, french fries and a fried chicken sandwich are her lunch-time treat. "I think anything in moderation is OK," she said.