Food in hospitals and prisons is terrible – but it doesn’t have to be that way

Globe and Mail

For my entire life, my doctors, my parents and my government have sent me one clear message about food: Nutrition is a key component of physical and mental health. So I had assumed (and hoped) that if MDs or MPPs were choosing menus for those in their care, the result would be a 3-D version of the Canada’s Food Guide chart I coloured in elementary school.

But I have been looking into how we feed two specific groups of people in government care – hospital patients and correctional service prisoners – and the reality is rather unpalatable. Our taxpayer-funded, government-run institutions focus on meeting legal nutritional guidelines for the lowest price, outsourcing their cooking to the same half-dozen companies. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Each Ontario hospital sets its own food budget, since the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care doesn’t give hospitals a cost guideline. North York General Hospital in uptown Toronto spends $4.46-million a year on food service: $1.66-million for food, plus $2.8-million for labour. The hospital says it had 144,165 “inpatient days” in 2014-15, which works out to $11.51 for food and $19.42 for labour, each day, per patient.

The hospital uses Steamplicity, a meal program by Compass, a global food service provider with annual sales of $31-billion. It’s one of the main providers of large-scale food service in Canada; its competitors include Sysco, Gordon Food Service, Aramark and Sodexo.

Steamplicity meals are made in a production facility in Mississauga: food and water are put in “bespoke packaging” (it appears to be a plastic container) that has a valve designed to pop open when the internal temperature reaches 120 Celsius in a microwave. “The result is hot, delicious food, which retains its essential nutrients, where the flavour and texture of the food are preserved,” says Saira Husain, a spokeswoman for Compass.

The company provided sample menus for North York General and Humber River hospitals: There were a variety of choices (Oriental beef stir fry, dhal with rice vegetable medley) and categories (starters, mains, etc). Each hospital assembles its own menus based on the options available: The North York General menu includes a vegan section, while Humber offers baked spaghetti with corn and broccoli.

“It sounds good, but is almost all frozen and quite highly processed,” says Joshna Maharaj, a chef and food advocate who has led changes in the kitchens at The Stop Community Food Centre, Ryerson University and the Hospital for Sick Children. “The biggest problem with frozen food is that it ends up quite watery, and everything is soft, one texture. Clinical.”

From 2011 to 2012, Maharaj attempted to revolutionize the food at Scarborough General Hospital in east Toronto. Using grants from the province and the Greenbelt Fund, she bought ingredients from local farmers, changed the menu to reflect the community’s food culture (congee, jerk chicken) and trained the kitchen staff to cook from scratch.

Sadly, most of the changes were temporary. Scarborough General declined to discuss their budget for food service, but Maharaj says she could produce meals from scratch, using local ingredients, for only 33 additional cents each.

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