Great Cheap Eats: The Cafeteria at DHMC. Honest.

They don't like to talk about it much, but there are people all around the Upper Valley who head over to DHMC on Mondays. Not for treatment. For lunch. 

Specifically, for roast salmon. It costs $5 if you get it without the side of Caesar, $5.50 with. There's even a guy who regularly buys seven or eight portions, eats one and takes the others home to feed himself the rest of the week. "I know a lot of retirees who come in every day for lunch," says Deb Keane, who's DHMC's director of food and nutrition services. "It’s the best food around."

Okay, maybe that's a tiny stretch. But it's certainly some of the healthiest. And hands-down some of the most reasonably priced you'll find anywhere. Soup is $1.50, with two bags of crackers free. A cod sandwich is $3.75. The turkey with potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce that's Thursday's featured meal is $4.00. There's an extensive salad bar, with locally sourced greens, a variety of bean salads, and what can only be called a nut-and-seed bar next to it (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, flax seed, sunflower seeds, chia seeds...), all at 30 cents per ounce. "You can eat really well here for practically nothing," says Dr. Martha Graber, a nephrologist at the hospital.

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Much of this is the work of Deb Keane, who started her current job at the hospital about 8 years ago and set out to change the way it fed its employees and visitors. The first thing to go was the deep-fat fryer. "We got rid of chicken fingers, which was our number-one-selling entree," she says, then pauses slightly, as if weighing whether to trot out yet again a phrase she no doubt used a lot back then. She does. "They were a casket in a basket." She replaced them with the salmon, which is now the cafeteria's number-one-selling entree.

Deb Keane, DHMC's director of food and nutrition services.

Over the years, the cafeteria has begun working with local farms and added a lot of whole grains, beans, nuts and other not-your-usual-cafeteria-items to its menu. It's added options for vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-free eaters, like beanburgers from Vermont Bean Crafters, and regular $2 tofu entrees. "Throwing tofu onto the menu, that’s a tough one, because we know we’re not going to please everyone," says Deb Keane.

But it's definitely pleased enough people. When I barged in on Larry and Joan Burch, who used to work at the hospital and are now retired, they graciously invited me to join them at their table and immediately brought this up. "This is one of the few places you can get a really good vegan spread around here," said Larry. "And if you're a senior living alone, it's hard to keep salad fresh all week. So you come here."

Larry and Joan Burch

I asked Deb about the pricing, wondering if the hospital subsidizes it on behalf of its employees, who make up about 80 percent of the customers. She gave a really interesting answer. "We don’t cover all of our expenses," she said, "but I try to make the healthier foods affordable and may have to up-charge on other items like cakes and sodas. The other benefit is that if I’ve got people eating here four or five days a week and they’re changing their eating habits and becoming healthier, then that’s less of a cost to the hospital, so our savings are realized in other ways."

But I know you're wondering: How was the lunch? Okay, Mom, I know you're reading this. I should have gone for the salad. But today's Thursday, turkey day. I did skip the potatoes and add in green beans and a really quite lovely Wheat Berry Pilaf. The verdict? I'd definitely do it again. The turkey was fresh-tasting, antibiotic-free, and just enough. The gravy was not too salty. The stuffing had parsley and sage in it, and the onions added a slight sweetness. The pilaf was superb: garlicky, nutty, with carrots and basil. The price? $6. Here's the proof. And no, Mom, there were no green beans left over when I was done.

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