Not What You Want When You’re Sick

My very first job was delivering meals in a hospital. It was the 80s, and it was Nova Scotia, so we’re not taking Michelin 3-star cuisine here; the food was straightforward, comforting and fairly bland. But it was all made in-house, in a massive kitchen that (between patients and cafeteria) cooked 1200 meals three times a day. For hospital/cafeteria food, it was pretty decent, and as reasonably unprocessed as you can get working with that quantity.

Hospital food has always gotten a bad rap, but in the mid-90s, in order to cut expenses, almost all hospitals switched from in-house food prep to using contracted services. From a business standpoint, it totally makes sense – even dietary aides and cafeteria workers are unionized – back when my friends were making the late-80s minimum wage of $3.50 an hour, I was making $8.10. Holidays got me double that. Paying a flat per meal rate to an off-site caterer winds up being a lot cheaper. And that space where the cafeteria used to be – well, why not rent that out to fast food chains, since that’s what people like to eat anyway?

That 80s hospital food wasn’t gourmet by any means but at least there was a notion, a pretense, of it being nutritionally sound. My bosses were nutritionists and dietitians, not marketing wonks looking to save a buck.

The result was that hospital food’s reputation got even worse. I know plenty of people who have friends or family bring them food from home while in hospital, because the stuff from the contracted caterers is just inedible.

In the UK, the problem is the same. And Chef Heston Blumenthal is working to do for hospital food what Jamie Oliver did for school dinners. For now the program is geared towards elderly patients who may have lost some of their sense of taste, and will focus on umami, the savoury taste. But if it is successful, I’m guessing it will be expanded to all patients.

Here in Toronto, North York General Hospital rolled out a program last summer in which patient meals are cooked on the patient floors using a system called Steamplicity, which is actually like a big vending machine – presumably the prep is still done off-site. Patients get to choose from up to 20 different restaurant-style entrées, selected on hand-held devices that provide nutritional information. I haven’t heard of any other hospitals adopting this system since NYG announced the program last year, and I’m guessing it’s more expensive to run than either an in-house kitchen or contracted food services.  But the information and media coverage I’ve seen indicates that it tastes a lot better than regular hospital grub. If it brings better, healthier food to patients, isn’t this something we should be doing across the board?

If hospitals aren’t providing good nutrition for their patients, if the cafeteria options are burgers and fries – what does that really say to the world about prioritizing nutrition and the benefits of eating well for better health? And when you’re in hospital and feeling crap, a nice meal can not only improve your physical condition, but your mental and emotional state as well (seriously – there is nothing more depressing that a plate of fish sticks on a hospital tray).

Hospital food isn’t ever going to please everyone, and no doubt most people would prefer food from home, or their favourite restaurant, but more needs to be done to make it healthy and palatable, with less concern as to how much it costs.