Debra Ryan‘s passion for nutrition comes out of her own struggle with food allergies and limitations and a desire to give back and help people with similar restrictions. She started off her career working for Sodexo as a dietary technician and when a trayline supervisor position opened up, Debra got her first taste of management experience. From there on out she has held a variety of management jobs in Patient Services, Retail, Catering and later advanced onto Assistant director positions. Now she is one year into her position as Director of Nutrition at Care One of Woodcrest, a long term care facility in New Milford, New Jersey. While working hard to keep Woodcrest running smoothly, Debra Ryan serves as President of the Greater New Jersey Society for Healthcare Food Service Administrators (GNJSHFSA), a state chapter of the national level Association for Healthcare Foodservice (AHF). We spoke with her about her career path, what its like in a long term care facility and a myriad of other topics regarding healthcare food service.
What were you doing before Woodcrest? What brought you there?
My career advanced from a contract based company to self operated Organization after about ten years of contract experience. Then after working eight years as an Assistant Director at a self operated facility, due to restructuring, my position was eliminated. Within a month, I was fortunate to be hired into my current position as Director of Nutrition at Care One of Woodcrest. Shifting my career path from acute care to long term care and moving up to a Director’s position where everything relies on you was something I was not acquainted to, however, having had several years of diverse management experience facilitated a seamless transition.
How has long term care dining evolved?
In a nutshell, the views of a long term care facility’s dining services had been institutional ~ mainly to provide sustenance that met the nutritional needs of the residents. It has now evolved to not only provide meals that adhere to guidelines but also to provide the highest quality of food and presentation while serving the meals to the residents. Our residents have had opportunities to enhance their palates by experiencing different cuisines of the world so their expectations are now much higher. I’m very proud to see where we are now compared to where we were.
Menu wise there is a lot of pressure to serve “farm to table” style and local produce. Is this realistic for a facility such as Woodcrest?
Yes and no. We have certain vendors that we are required to use and order guides that we are authorized to order from. We do have a local produce company that we use to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
How are you able to serve residents with specific restrictions or preferences?
By being creative and thinking out of the box to exceed expectations. For example we had an Indian resident with very specific dietary restrictions and cultural preferences. It was a challenge and something we had not done before but we were able to formulate different recipes for this resident. We created his meals individually and every time we served him there was such sincere gratitude and appreciation that we went above and beyond.
How do you choose your vendors? Is it based on price or do you have specific vendors you always go to?
There are specific approved vendors that we are assigned to use at our facility. We have very little autonomy in our vendor selection.
How about kitchen equipment? Is it the same process?
We have an approved list of vendors to choose from and then we are required to get three different quotes from them for the same item. Whichever company offers the best deal is the one that we go with.
Have you done any renovations in the kitchen or do you have anything planned?
It is a great expense but we would like renovate our kitchen flooring. For now, with some creativity, we sanded and repainted to make it slip resistant and presentable but are hoping to modernize it in the near future.
What is your approach to building your team at Woodcrest?
I truly believe you have to lead by example. You can’t build a team if you aren’t a part of it. I am very hands on and adhere to the same expectations I have for my staff. I also believe in getting my staff involved in decision making to encourage ownership of the new ideas and processes. They’re my lifeline, it is a team effort to be successful. If something is not working, we work together to fix it.
How are you attracting the young, millennial generation of professionals to your facility?
Currently, my night staff is primarily made up of millennials. The way I approach it, is to make them cognizant that there’s always opportunity for growth and to build a career. That they are going to be successful if they have real passion for what they do. Mentorship that leads towards promoting within is also vital to uphold their longevity within the Organization.
What would you tell someone who wants to work in nutrition or healthcare food service?
There are endless possibilities and job opportunities in the field of nutrition. Whether you have a concentration in culinary arts or nutrition or even a combination of both, there is a position out there that will not only challenge you but will be extremely rewarding. In the realm of long term care facilities, most of the residents reside there, it is their home. We as food service professionals are their personal chefs, wait staff and dietitians. We are responsible for them. It is not just coming in and working for whatever your shift is and leaving. You are making an impact on somebody’s life.