Geisinger's food service strategy amid the pandemic: Insights from senior director Steve Cerullo

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., hospitals and health systems began rethinking their food service operations to address safety concerns and shifting patient volumes. 

For Geisinger, a 13-hospital system based in Danville, Pa., that meant developing a plan that would cater to facilities of various sizes, from a 440-bed facility to one with about 20 beds. 

The health system's approach before the pandemic was a model focused on self-service, said Steve Cerullo, senior food services director at Geisinger. 

"Pre-pandemic, we were highly focused on letting the customer get what they want. Most of our stuff was self-service, [including] salad bars," he explained. "We were heavily promoting bring your own cups from home for coffee. That was part of our sustainability plan. Soup was self-service. [Sites had] self-service sandwich bars and yogurt parfait bars."

But that approach started to change in the spring as more information was available about masking and sanitation guidelines. 

Geisinger didn't want to eliminate salad bars and other popular aspects of food services, especially since there were still patients and healthcare workers in hospitals in need of them, said Mr. Cerullo. So the health system put screens up behind the salad bars and had food service workers behind the salad bars serving customers. Geisinger also has food service workers serving at condiment and coffee stations, and it removed more than 60 percent of seating in its cafeterias and shifted to more grab-and-go items such as salads and sandwiches.

Mr. Cerullo said one of the biggest challenges with this now is maintaining staffing.

"Geisinger has lost about 60 percent of our retail [food service] volume, [mainly from limited visitors and more employees working from home], but our work has doubled or tripled in some instances," he said. "That's one of the hardest pieces to navigate currently."

Loss in catering volume has also been a challenge. The health system would generate about $3 million a year in catering before the pandemic, but 95 percent of that business has faded. 

Despite these challenges, Geisinger has been able to leverage the knowledge of its health IT team to assist in food services. 

Mr. Cerullo said an app lets employees order and pay for their lunch, then pick it up at designated campus locations. 

"The folks that use it love it," he said. "I think that was a huge success for us because we didn't want mass crowds in cafeterias, so that was kind of our answer to that service. It seemed to work really well."  


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