Vancouver hospital introduces Chinese-food menu to patients

Steve Mertl
Better Hospital Food with Obamacare

There's more evidence hospital food may be starting a long, torturous climb out of the gastronomic abyss.

St. Joseph's Hospital in Vancouver is introducing a Chinese menu that includes items like fried rice, barbecued pork, bok choy and black bean fish, according to Global News.

The vast majority of the east Vancouver hospital's long-term patients are Chinese, so the hospital worked with Sodexo, its food-service provider, to develop the menu in addition the lineup of traditional hospital fare. It will be offered to all patients.

“Food is the most important thing for long-term care residents here and that’s one thing they can have a sense of control over and a voice to tell us what they like and don’t like,” Sodexo spokeswoman Cynthia Goertz told Global News.

Hospitals have never had a reputation for haute cuisine. Who hasn't toted a bag of take-out Chinese food or some pizza to an ailing friend or loved one?

And it turns out the meals, usually reheated from frozen portions trucked in from centralized kitchens to save money, aren't particularly nutritious. The veggies are often overcooked mush while salt is surprisingly abundant.

[ Related: Hospital food not only tastes bad, it actually isn’t good for you ]

"My first meal in the CCC, which is the intensive care for heart attack patients, was a roast beef sandwich on doughy white bread," Victoria heart patient Carolyn Thomas told CBC News last year. "I thought I would be getting veggies and fruit."

Hospital administrators admit cost and efficiency is a factor in food preparation and handling.

Hospitals often take cold processed foods such as lasagna and spoon it out onto patient trays, which are then heated on carts, Heather Fletcher, manager of food services of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told CBC News. The process is known as "retherming."

The other half of the tray stays chilled for cold foods, presumably like Jello and pudding cups. The coffee or tea is somewhere in between.

CBC News reported most hospitals budget about $8 a day for patient meals.

Not surprisingly, patients rebel. The Globe and Mail reported in 2011 that up to 40 per cent of what hospital patients are offered ends up uneaten and thrown away.

All the more surprising that this is tolerated, since physicians see good food as an important aid to patients regaining their strength. With their appetites already impaired by illness, they're unlikely to dive into unappetizing meals.

"When someone is ill, their need for proteins and calories is much greater than when they are well, because they have wounds to heal and tissue to repair," dietitian Paule Bernier of Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, who co-authored a study on the subject, told CBC News.

"The challenge I see is in having the proper budget to purchase quality food, a variety of food that is healing, and preparing it in a way that it retains its quality."

But there are signs hospitals are taking notice.

CBC News reported last year that St. Joseph's Hospital in Guelph, Ont., received a provincial grant to bolster the quality and nutrition of its food. It has largely ended outsourcing of its meals, making 75 per cent from scratch.

[ Related: Northern Manitoba town flocks to local hospital — for the food ]

The change boosted patient satisfaction with meals to 87 per cent and also improved staff morale, Leslie Carson, the hospital's manager of food and nutrition services, told CBC News.

"There's really no joy or sense of ownership in taking a box of lasagna and moving it from A to B," said Carson.

"But when a cook is making the meat sauce for the lasagna and feeling a sense of control over the destiny of that lasagna, there's a sense of pride in the creation of the food and the serving of the food."

What's happening at St. Joseph's in Vancouver doesn't go quite that far. The meals are still being prepared at Sodexo's kitchens, which means the Chinese food program won't cost any more than the old menu.

Not everyone is holding their breath judging from this tweet.

So don't throw those take-out menus away just yet.