By Michele Conklin, MBA, MSJ

Hospitals are places where health is restored. They have not, traditionally, been places people think of when they’re looking for a delectable, restorative dining experience.

At Castle Rock Adventist Hospital, Chef Dan Skay is changing that. For Skay, food is more than a meal. It’s a passion, a mission, and a path to wellness. For several years, he has been setting Parker Adventist Hospital, and now Castle Rock Adventist Hospital and its surrounding community, on that tasty path alongside him.

Skay was the driving force behind Manna, a sit-down restaurant with wait staff that opened in 2013 inside Castle Rock Adventist Hospital. With a motto of “Bringing God’s Bounty to the Table,” and a menu that this winter included sweet potato red pepper bisque, Colorado lamb, salmon carbonara and maple-glazed duck confit, Manna is a far cry from the standard hospital cafeteria.

Under Skay’s direction, Manna is a place where diners can indulge without guilt. The restaurant supports “humane, sustainable, and responsible farming practices,” and tips and donations support health and wellness projects in the community.

Skay is committed to using fresh, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. So, at his urging, the Castle Rock Adventist Hospital Community Garden was born. Now, what started as a way to supply Manna’s table has blossomed into a community center of sorts. Each growing sea- son, area residents rent plots in the garden—typically all 95 are spoken for, and waiting lists are common. As residents gather throughout the summer to tend their crops, what they grow in those plots is more than beans, lettuce, and tomatoes. They are nurturing a community, and, quite possibly, souls.

The garden’s popularity doesn’t surprise Skay. “I think society is looking to go back to simpler ways, and there is a big push for more local, more natural food now,” he says.

“Community, health, nutrition, it all ties together for me,” Skay says. “The restaurant, what we’re doing in the garden, the community involvement—it’s all part of being pro-actively healthy, versus working with people only when they get sick. We want to be partners in their health to begin with.”

He may have launched a destination restaurant and a flourishing community garden, but Skay is not finished. This summer, he plans to work with local food banks to provide them any excess produce from the garden. And, at the top of Skay’s to-do list for 2017: an assessment and education pro- gram that will examine the difficulty many in the community face getting access to healthy, sufficient food supplies, and addressing the impacts that food insecurity has on health.

This year, he hopes to launch a community health needs assessment, looking at the nutrition needs of Castle Rock Adventist Hospital patients. With that information in hand, Skay envisions working with the hospital to develop nutrition education programs and even cooking classes.

“We want to be a community partner for wellness, not just providing health care when you’re sick but preventive health care to keep you from getting sick,” Skay says. His goals for the coming year don’t end there. He hopes to build a greenhouse that would provide produce nearly year round. And, he plans to set up a program with a local high school to allow students to work in that greenhouse. As he envisions it, the greenhouse would include an aquaponic fish tank with fish waste supplying nutrients for the garden and the fish ultimately turning up on Manna’s menu.

Skay is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York; he’s a winner of the Great Chefs of America Culinary Competition, a Grand Prize Winner of Custom Foods Golden Recipe competition, and has been named The Wall Street Journal’s Hospital Top Chef.

But his career as a chef, and his appreciation for natural and local ingredients was born far from the kitchens of the culinary elite. Skay grew up on a ranch outside Cody, Wyoming, where he discovered early on the taste difference between eggs gathered on the ranch and their processed cousins bought at the grocery store.

“We had fresh elk steaks, fresh fish, rabbit, deer—it was all natural, all fresh,” he says.

Those experiences inform his cooking and his approach to food and health now. And, they are summed up in Manna’s purpose: Help you stay healthy by treating you—body, mind, and spirit.

Michele Conklin, MBA, MSJ, is president & executive editor of Clementine Healthcare Marketing.