Thinking About Hospital Food

As a nursing student, I have had the chance to work in many different hospitals around Nova Scotia. During my clinical experiences I have seen many hospital meals and I have spent a great deal of time feeding patients who could not feed themselves. When it comes to discussing food, I find that one topic that is not addressed is the quality of hospital food.

Think of the last time that you were sick or didn’t feel well. I know that when I am sick my appetite decreases significantly. When I do feel like eating, I want to eat something that tastes good and will help me feel better. For some reason this principle does not seem to translate to hospital food. Hospital patients already have many factors working against their appetites when they are admitted. In addition to feeling unwell, eating at the bedside may decrease their appetite due to unpleasant odours and the medical conditions and behaviours of patients in the same room.  There is also the nausea, vomiting and constipation experienced by many. This combination of factors often leads to patients not receiving the nutrients they need to make a speedy recovery.

To be fair to the hospital administrators and nutritional staff, I do realize the challenges that you face when trying to prepare meals. In our public health care system, money is tight. I realize that. I know that you have to strike a balance between limiting the range of the menu to reduce costs and creating a menu that is varied enough to satisfy most patients preferences and dietary requirements. The challenge is to prepare food that the patient will actually want to eat that is also economical, healthy and of high quality.

One of the ways to improve the quality of the food being served in Nova Scotia hospitals is to develop procurement agreements with local food producers to supply fresh, high quality foods to hospitals. There are already many hospitals and health care networks across Canada that are adopting local food procurement strategies.  Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital  and Ross Memorial Hospital in Lindsay, Ontario are just two examples. (Click the links to find out more about the local food programs at these two hospitals)

While there is often the fear that buying local will increase costs, the administration of St. Mikes found that the food services budget and the amount of labourers did not have to change. After the hospital introduced fresh, local foods into the menu, the number of patients who rated the hospital food as “excellent” in satisfaction surveys went up by 206%. Staff stated that the local foods infused a “freshness into patient’s meals that was previously lacking”. This lead to improved food quality and patient experience. It wasn’t just the patients that were excited about the changes; local food lead to more excited staff. By switching from frozen, imported vegetables to fresh, local produce, it allowed staff to be more innovative with meals and adopt seasonal variety into the menu.

Good food is just as important in an acute health care setting as it is at home. Hospitals across Nova Scotia are constantly evolving to improve how they deliver care, but the issue of food is often neglected and forgotten. Let’s change the way we think about hospital food and introduce more locally produced food into the menu. This will not only benefit the patients, but also our local farmers and food producers, as revenues that would normally go elsewhere are reinvested in our local communities.

Author: Joel Mansvelt, Nursing student intern from the Dalhousie University School of Nursing.

2 thoughts on “Thinking About Hospital Food

  1. Agreed. I’ve been lucky enough to only make three visits to a hospital (to deliver children), but in those short frames of time, I discovered the food to be not what it should be.

    My brother however makes several visits (often long-term) to hospitals each year because of his disease. I’ve been there when he’s had meals delivered, and although he needed to eat to rebuild his strength, the food was often prepared in a manner that discouraged eating. It didn’t look tasty, it didn’t smell good and often times the taste was horrible.

    Over the years I’ve seen a lot of food go to waste in hospitals. My question is: why do they feel they are saving money when patients won’t eat the food and it’s thrown out. Is it better to spend $3 on a meal that is put in the garbage or $4 on a meal that is eaten? Certainly more nutritious food will save money in the long run because it will help patients heal faster, which means they spend less time in the hospital.

    But I’ve come to realise our Canadian health care system doesn’t put nutrition at the top of the health care system even though it is the key to good health. But it doesn’t make the drug companies a lot of money.

  2. I unfortunately I think I would have to agree with you. We’re currently not putting enough focus on prevention or providing high quality foods in the institutions meant to serve our most vulnerable populations: the sick, elderly and our children. Let’s change this! 🙂

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