As executive chef for food services for the UC Davis Medical Center, Santana Diaz has implemented a “farm-to-fork” approach by sourcing directly from local farmers.

The hospital has also been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it treated the nation’s first patient infected by community spread. Diaz immediately implemented a series of backup plans, including partnering with local chefs to take over in case he fell ill, while also helping those restaurants to feed the needy during the crisis.

Previously the executive chef for the Golden 1 Center and for hotels, Diaz shared with Agri-Pulse how hospitals can provide farmers with more reliability year-round and reduce their market risks.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

1. How are you and your staff managing during this crisis?

Thank you for asking. The staff has been more than adaptable.

UC is offering all of its employees emergency approved leaves. It’s for our employees to be able to take time off if they were to come down with any symptoms related to COVID-19. They'd be able to stay home for 16 days.

It’s a great benefit, but we started looking at what that does to our workforce. With some people going home, it causes some other logistics that were not foreseen. All these other things that were outside of the hospital that impacted our staff, like childcare, became another thing we needed to address.

Of course, our last line of defense is always going to be serving our patient care. That's the number one priority. As we look at how the patient bed count fluctuates daily, we need to be able to account for what that means, whether we're down five extra cooks or five extra food service workers that day or not.

I don't know how many cooks could potentially be out next week.

There's been some contingencies that we've been able to flex with. Everybody's been pretty spot on with jumping into these contingency plans.

We've done a refresher course for every one of our cooks who doesn't work the tray line to get familiar with that. I have some cooks that have been here for 20 years. But the last time they worked the patient care tray line may have been when they were first hired.

2. Can you explain how you source directly from farmers?

The benefit of being in a high-volume institution for procurement and food purchasing is we're able to communicate to our produce vendor which farm to go to, because our volume is at a capacity that warrants the demand.

Produce Express can go pick up a pallet of asparagus from Capay Valley and they can sell that through their program as well as with us being a large client – and their business is hurt tremendous because they don't have any restaurants or casinos to deliver to anymore.

We actually have a contingency A, B, C and D plans for what we will do in certain situations, if we go further than Plan B.

With the farmers, I know a lot of them are heavy on product because there aren't the access points out there anymore. We're just trying to plan the best we can and let them know we're going to be there as much as we can. But our volume is actually reduced a little as well, since we don't have the visitors coming through to the hospital.

There's another contingency plan in my back pocket that I have with some of the chefs in town (from the Sacramento restaurants Canon, Mulvaney’s and Waterboy). We have them going through all the testing and security clearances to come and volunteer here.

I had to do a contingency plan on myself. What if I got sick? What if I and my two executive sous chefs contacted COVID were out for two weeks?

It’s a good showing of community relationships and partnerships, just like how they are (helping feed the needy while their restaurants are closed). We were able to support that with equipment. We're helping them out by giving them the racks and dollies needed to move the product from their restaurants to their transit system for getting those meals delivered.

There is always this relationship between our culinary program and the chefs in our community, and it really comes into fruition here.

Chef Santana Diaz UC Davis

(Photo: UC Davis)

3. Normally, how does direct purchasing help farmers reduce risk?

It would help the farmer if they always knew how much they should be planting. There are only about three asparagus farmers left in the Delta region. It is a high-cost, high-labor crop that’s cut by hand. But I could tell a farmer we need 9000 pounds to get through the spring months when asparagus is in season. That farmer can look at what they planted, with their potential yield per acre, and say yes, or plant more. We can also agree to what that cost is.

Cherry season pops up right around the same time. If farmworkers get offered $2 more an hour, they are going to stop cutting asparagus and go pick cherries. The asparagus farmer can't keep them because he doesn't know if he even has a product that's going to yield any money, since he doesn't know his end buyer.

A lot of farmers at that point will disk under their crop and the next season they’ll grow something else with less risk. That's how we’ve got so few farmers growing asparagus. Now we can bring agriculture back to the area.

(Along with schools, the Golden 1 Center arena and some restaurants) we can stabilize the market and have our community dictate the market, versus the market dictating.

4. How is providing food for a hospital different from other large venues?

Our CEO at UC Davis Health had this idea to bring a farm to fork program to the hospital. Somehow my name got tossed in the ring. I was going to stay with sports. It wasn't until it was seriously talked about by the executive leadership for having healthy, local food at an institution that maybe doesn't have the best stigma for being known for serving great food. Changing that whole thought process, the difference for me is night and day.

It gives me a value to what I've learned through the years through large-scale entities and productions – like Levi's Stadium, Golden 1 Center and hotels – and apply it to something I can stand behind and is for a good reason. We're helping people get from an ill state to a healthy state.

5. Any other thoughts to share?

Every day, I'm anticipating something to be changing with a contingency plan somewhere.

Who knows how food looks in general for our community in the future? I'm worried about all the restaurants even opening up after this whole thing is done. Is the CDC going to change the policies on how salad bars are offered? Or how many hands can touch the foods we're serving in our cafes at the hospital?

I'm constantly trying to keep an open mind and keep positive.

We're taking it literally a day at a time. Hopefully the worst doesn't happen, and we don't experience a surge. But if we do, we're prepared to make sure that all of our patient care services and staff are taken care of.

For more news, go to: