Fresh Food Instead of Glop for Alberta’s Seniors
It took an undercover investigation and a lot of angry seniors and their families, but residents of Alberta Health Service’s long-term facilities will be served real food once again.
For the past two years they have been stuck with re-heated, bland glop, stripped of flavor and light on nutrition, all in the name of slashing food budgets.
Sub-Standard Food As Cost-Cutting Measure
In December 2009 Alberta Health Services (AHS) launched a new, standardized menu for hospitals and nursing homes having fewer than 125 beds. Centralized food preparation facilities were supposed to mean cost savings. Workers were laid off. Menus were planned on a 21-day rotation.
The food was so inferior some residents stopped bothering to come to meals. Food is medicine, but the processed, heat-and-serve food was not. Staff complained of increases in urinary tract infections and wounds that healed more slowly. Nutritionists worried about the potential for more colds and flus, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer – all related to the poor diet.
On June 4, 2012, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) posted a video expose on YouTube. Tough to Swallow: Meals That Sparked a Seniors Revolt featured interviews with former and current caregivers, families, and seniors. The people stuck with the re-heated meals had plenty to say about their quality, such as:
- “What they call Oriental beef is something brown with brownish water drizzled over it.”
- “It all tastes just about the same.”
- “Ten names for the different types of chicken, but it’s all pretty well the same.”
John Gilchrist, CBC radio food critic and food writer for the Calgary Herald, went to Stettler Hospital & Care Centre with hidden cameras. After sampling the food, he said:
As low as my expectations were, they managed to somehow exceed them in the quality of the food. I didn’t think that some of that food that those people were served even existed any more.
He complained of watery potatoes, glossy gravy, and meats with no flavor or texture. He said it was some of the worst food he had had in years.
Next: Agitating for Change
Agitating for Change
AUPE and the Wildrose Party agreed the meals were disrespectful to seniors. They went after the government for serving poor quality, unappetizing food to people who had no alternatives.
They had the complaints of staff, residents and families on their side. They also had statistics. The heat-and-serve meals were not just unpalatable. They were also more expensive. In the first two years of the new system, food services costs had gone up 6%.
Waste had increased even more, as much of the food ended up in garbage cans. Kitchen staff no longer took pride in their work, and they had no power to change things.
Fortunately, government listened to the complaints. On July 26th Health Minister Fred Horne ordered AHS to re-open the kitchens and prepare food on site.
AHS Chief Operating Officer Chris Mazurkewich told the Edmonton Sun they would be talking to residents to find out what needs to be changed. He said:
We want to focus on how the residents find the food. As we go there though, what we’ve also been asked is make sure we’ve engaged the residents and look at the satisfaction of the food that’s being served and how it’s being served.
And then if that reflects how we’re preparing it, then we’re prepared to change it.
Too Little and Too Slow?
Critics are concerned action may happen too slowly and may not result in the fresh, nutritious meals people deserve. According to the video, AHS hired consultants to conduct focus groups with the residents. The result was a waste of time and money.
Many of those queried about the 21-day food plan had dementia and had little recall of what they had eaten the meal before. Others were afraid to speak out, fearing things might get worse if they complained. The consultants’ report claimed residents were happy, though they were skipping meals, wasting food, and suffering poorer health.
The frail and vulnerable seniors who will be asked about the food are not the only ones AHS should consult. They should also talk with the residents’ advocates, including staff and families.
According to CBC Edmonton, December 2012 is the target date for implementing the changes. For people who live in the facilities, bringing real food back to their plates cannot happen soon enough.
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Photo 1 from AUPE video; Photo 2 from Thinkstock