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Hospital cafe entices senior with healthy options, sweet discount

Phil Downs and his wife, Charlene, both 79, are in tip-top shape — they recently returned from a three-week trip to South Africa and keep healthy by working out several times a week.

The last place you’d expect to find the hale and hearty seniors on a Thursday evening out is a hospital, and yet the second floor of USC Verdugo Hills Hospital is exactly where they happened to be last week.

The La Crescenta couple were not there for any kind of treatment or to have prescriptions filled, but to take advantage of a new program in the hospital’s cafeteria that aims to keep seniors eating mindfully and offers them a healthy incentive for doing so.

USC Verdugo Hills recently expanded the number of “mindful eating” options and entrees at its Hillside Café to give customers a wider range of choices with reduced sodium, calories and/or fat. Coupled with options for vegans or people on paleo or gluten-free diets, there’s a little something for every diet.

La Cañada resident Nancy Hemstreet, who has eaten at the USC Verdugo Hills Hospital’s Hillside Café before, explains its offerings to newcomer Kathy Burns, of Altadena.

(Tim Berger/La Cañada Valley Sun)

To sweeten the deal, officials are offering a 30% discount for customers 65 years and older on all non-prepackaged items from 4 to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Phil Downs is sold on the idea — last Thursday found him hosting with Charlene a large group of friends from a cardiac rehab group, which meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“I really understand how vitally important what’s happening here in this cafeteria is,” said Downs, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who’s come to appreciate the importance of staying connected in one’s golden years.

“You can come down here and eat cheaper than you’d buy the stuff from the store, and maybe you’ll run into another old senior and have a nice meal,” he added.


Nina Tucker is greeted by Barbara Lewis and Kathy Burns as the evening’s host, Phil Downs, laughs. The group was gathered for dinner in the Hillside Cafe at USC VHH.

(Tim Berger/La Cañada Valley Sun)

Clinical nutrition manager Stephanie Wood said the recent expansion of healthy choices and the discount was designed to encourage seniors to try a good alternative to dining at a traditional restaurant.

“As we age appetite decreases, so it’s more challenging for seniors to get all the vitamins and nutrients they need,” she said. “When we can provide foods with multiple vitamins and minerals in one item, it really helps get them to their goals.”

During their Thursday dinner, the Downs pushed together cafeteria tables to accommodate the large crowd of friends they’d invited. Among them was La Cañada resident Nancy Hemstreet, who’d joined the couple for a meal days earlier and found it to her liking.

“The food is good,” she said. “They’ve got your health in mind.”


A table of friends join Phil Downs, at left, for dinner together at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital on Aug. 22.

(Tim Berger/La Cañada Valley Sun)

As they supped on soup, salads and entrees Hemstreet talked with friends Barbara Lewis, of La Crescenta, and Altadena resident Kathy Burns about holding another get-together.

“We should pick a night,” Burns suggested, floating next Thursday.

“We can come as a group,” said Lewis.

“If a bunch of us came, it’d be neat,” Hemstreet agreed. “But we’d have to go home before dark, because we don’t drive so well at night.”

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