Cooking with Kindness: A Conversation with Joe Armato

Joseph Armato, a chef and a dietician, did not always envision his career of pleasing the palates of over sixty elderly residents at Abington Manor at Morgan Hill. Joe, as the residents and staff affectionately call him, says, “I had every intention of going to law school after college. However, in high school, I took a baking class, making these elaborate birthday and wedding cakes and found I really enjoyed it. It felt comfortable, like a true niche.” He pauses occasionally to joke playfully with a member of the Abington staff. Joe graduated from East Stroudsburg University with a degree in business administration. In regard to starting his career in nutrition, Joe says, “I went from restaurant to health care . . . I was a director of food service at Lehigh University—mostly for catering. I became the director of retail operations for the student body at King’s College and managed all of the campus food outlets. There are a multitude of fast-food outlets on campus. Later, I was the director of business and food operations for Meals on Wheels for Monroe County—under contract through a nonprofit organization. When they merged, I was out in the world and I came to Abington.” It is clear that Joe’s occupational repertoire has helped prepare him for his challenging job at Abington. As a director at Lehigh University, Joe decided to obtain his dietary certification in order to progress his career. He says, “I took [certification] courses at Lehigh University through Sodexo as an in-house corporate training program. It took me one year to get certified—we fast tracked it. Generally it takes two years but Sodexo employs its instructors to accelerate the classes.”

As a certified dietician, Joe’s responsibilities include the oversight of the menus and the purchasing and preparation of the food. Dieticians ensure the nutritional value of the meals and that individual client’s nutritional needs are met. “I have the autonomy to get in touch with the doctor . . . [and] break down the composition of food and calories in accordance to the doctor’s specifications,” Joe says. “For example, a resident with esophageal problems may require a specific puree diet.” Often, Joe observes in the dining hall dietary problems that must be addressed by the doctor. Joe then makes recommendations to the doctor on a specific course of dietary action. In addition to being very involved with the patient’s health, he also cooks during one mealtime a day. He goes on to say, “I choose to be in the kitchen because I am very hands on… I speak with every resident for two meals, lunch and dinner. I ask how they feel and if they’re experiencing any difficulties. In observing these things, you are able to keep a healthy population.”
Joe’s proactive technique is refreshing and possible because of the size of the facility. Abington is home to approximately sixty-nine residents and contains one dining hall. A small scale operation, such as this, allows for a more personal environment. In regard to working in a larger scale dining hall, Joe says, “I could not be in the kitchen and intermingle. It was more about the paperwork and meeting budgets.” Upon arriving at Abington, Joe made many changes to the dining hall, both in its food and aesthetics. “Past management provided much more basic food [with less garnish and side dishes] and much less social interaction.” Joe feels that good food only gets better when accompanied with a pleasant and social environment. Despite his busy schedule, he always makes time to mingle with the residents at Abington. Joe says, “I got it down to a science. Despite the derailment of emergencies and necessities, I try to stay on a tight schedule. I consider how long I can afford to spend with each resident.” Gesturing towards the round mahogany table and chairs in the dining hall, Joe shows me that he has formalized the dining environment. A grand chandelier hangs in the center of the room. Abington’s dining room feels like a family dining room: the round tables promote a sense of community. Three sides of the dining hall are floor-to-ceiling windows. Adorned with draperies, they allow plenty of sunlight and quite a beautiful view.

Abington is an assisted living facility for senior citizens. It sits high up on Morgan Hill in a rural setting in Easton, Pennsylvania. The first exit off of Route 78 West leads to a small and winding road. To your right is a golf course and to your left is a cemetery. Just past all of this and down a long driveway sits Abington. This facility recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. My grandmother, Julia Veres, has lived at Abington for two years. About a year prior to her arrival, she fell and broke her arm while bending down to play with a puppy. At this time, Grandma Julia was living independently at her home in Phillipsburg, NJ. Although her advanced age and decline in health made it necessary for family members to check in on her daily, her fall was the deciding factor in choosing assisted living. My family knew that she could not live on her own any longer. My grandmother lived with us for a few months before alternating to live with my uncle in Easton and my aunt in South Jersey. The constant moving was unfair to Grandma Julia, who longed for a place of her own to watch Jeopardy and do her crosswords. After thorough research, my family decided on a new home: Abington Manor. With a new wardrobe and hairdo, Julia arrived at Abington in March of 2012 and has thrived ever since. My family is grateful for the amount of care and emotional attention she receives. At 91, she is very articulate and witty, and has made many friends with the devoted staff and fellow residents. Julia’s apartment is complete with a loveseat, reclining chair, her double bed, and several stuffed cats that rest on her bed when she is not. Her walls are decorated with photographs of family, and things from her home in Phillipsburg. At first glance, Grandma Julia’s room resembles her old bedroom so much, that one may forget that she is not in her old house. My grandmother loves food. “Food is my friend,” she often says. As a child of the Depression, she recounted many times going to bed with an empty stomach and always told her grandchildren not to waste food. Dining out with Grandma was always a weekend treat. Obviously, Grandma Julia has a very special place in her heart for Joe, the man behind the delicious menus at Abington.
Having eaten at Abington many times, I can attest to the quality of the meals and service. Three meals are served each day: breakfast is served at 8 a.m., dinner at noon, and supper at 5. The largest is always served at noon to aid in their digestion. I stayed for dinner at noon with Grandma Julia and was served roast beef with gravy, glazed carrots, and mashed potatoes. Ice cream and coffee completed the meal. Grandma, however, chose the lemon chicken with mashed potatoes and carrots. Every day, the residents receive to choose each meal for the day. The menus are planned a month in advance and are scheduled on a thirty-day rotation. Joe says, “It’s called a cycle menu. It’s found in healthcare and at schools. The menu will repeat itself within that rotational period but I change it according to special events and the seasons.” There are plenty of options and alternative meals to satisfy any palate. A variety of beverages are offered at each meal. Some of these include flavored water at zero calories, cranberry juice, apple juice, ginger ale, milk, and ice water. Coffee and tea are available at all hours. By the way, the coffee at Abington is some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. This quality of food is unusual for an institutional setting. One would normally expect “hospital food” in a nursing home environment. However, Joe attributes the quality of the food to the budget at Abington. He says, “We are fortunate here at Abington because everything is based on income. As you progress as an institution, you will find that the food corresponds with monthly payment: the higher the budget, the higher the quality. Probably the highest budget in nursing is food service.”

Abington Manor on Morgan Hill http://theabingtonmanor.com/

Abington Manor on Morgan Hill
http://theabingtonmanor.com/

 

Joe spoke in general for a bit, stating his recommendations for a healthy diet. He does not restrict himself from foods that he, himself, enjoys, other than fast food and soda. He feels that both of these have too much fat or sugar and, doing without them, “people would live a lot longer.” Joe recommends a diet of moderation. “I think you can eat mostly what you want, and when you want. However, everything must be in balance.” This ideology challenges the trendy all-or-nothing diets popular today. I frequently hear friends talking about their absolutely no-carbs diet, their no meat diet, or their liquid diet. The problem with these diets is that they create an imbalance in your body and often cause you to splurge the first chance you get. In other words, they do not work. Joe is a man of fifty-five years and is in really good shape. His secret? Joe is a happy man. He exudes warmth and friendliness, and is good at what he does. “You can tell where you’re comfortable, and your personality has to fit your career path,” Joe says. “I am happier at 55 than I was at 25.” In addition to a balanced diet and a positive attitude, he adds, “I am a big advocate of check-ups. Once a year, you need a total blood work and physical. You just do not know what is going on under the hood.”

Most of the residents at Abington are children of the Great Depression. Like my grandma, they know the hardships of not having enough of life’s necessities and being grateful for what they have. “This generation [the generation of the current residents] is from the Depression . . . they are used to very simple and basic foods . . . some are reluctant to try dishes that may be more exotic to the palate.” Joe talks about gaining the trust of his residents and looks to ingratiate himself to them. One has to remember that everything at Abington is new to them. Change is really difficult for the elderly and can often create a threatening and confusing existence. A few residents are in the early stages of dementia. It is important to make the transition as smooth and comfortable as possible. “Once you win over their trust, that is half the battle,” Joe says. The Abington population is filled with amazing and unique individuals, such as an Auschwitz survivor, several World War II veterans, and, at one time, one of the first Navy Seals. Joe often reminds his staff to stop and “talk and listen to these people.” He adds, “You just never know how many fascinating people there are. Everyone has a story.” Grandma Julia, in fact, is a World War II veteran. She served in the United States Navy as a W.A.V.E. She was a radioman and used Morse code in communicating with the ships at sea. I sometimes wear her navy blue jacket as an ode to my heroic Grandma and her accomplishments. Grandma is one of the many that Joe is referring to.

Grandma Julia’s First Christmas at Abington!

Grandma Julia’s First Christmas at Abington!

 

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