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Jun 12, 2006 03:36 PM

Hospital food - is anything being done?

  • c

I recently spent a lot of time visiting the hospital where a friend of mine was very, very sick. This was a good hospital, one of the best in the country (Mass General). But the food was appalling. Cheap, greasy, and most definitely not health-promoting. There were some decent alternatives, like a fruit plate with yogurt, but mostly there was a heck of a lot of white flour and sugar, and sandwiches made with Kraft singles, and highly questionable hamburger - the sort of food you could get a Big Boy restaurant or maybe a Denny's. I don't eat this sort of stuff when I'm well because it makes me feel gross. She had to eat this stuff three meals a day for two months.

I'm frustrated and angry that we feed sick people food that is so lacking in nourishment. I've searched the internet unsuccessfully for any U.S. programs designed to improve the quality of hospital food. (There is an initiative in the U.K. in which a group of organic farmers and hospital nutritionists are working together to improve food in a few hospitals.) There are several programs aimed at improving the food in schools, but as far as I can tell, none aimed at hospitals. Does anyone know of anything? If no programs like this exist, could anyone suggest a larger group, like SlowFood, that might be interested in working on this issue? I would like to volunteer my time to such a program, would even go so far as to spearhead an effort, but I don't know where to start.


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  1. Interesting. Our Slow Food Convivium has discussed this as an opportunity for our involvement and we plan to look into it at our local hospital. Last weekend there was an article about the school food in Berkeley where despite Alice Waters' efforts, it was still pretty bad so her foundation hired a chef for 3 years to improve the lunch program. One of the difficulties was that by law they have to use commodity foods which can not be sold, returned, or given away! Also, all the recipes need to be approved by the FDA for nutritional content! She is making progress but it is slow going. Given choices, the kids seem to be learning to make good ones.

    Anyway, it made me wonder if hospitals are bound by the same rules and purchasing orders. It might not be so bad for a patient who is in for a few days, but when someone has a long stay poor food certainly can't help their recovery.

    I'll raise this issue again at our next mmeting and see if anyone has started on it and what we can find out locally and also email you so we can be in touch that way.


    1 Reply
    1. re: suzannapilaf

      As an administrator for one of the largest food programs in the US I would be inclined to agree that the hospitals are most likely regulated by US Health and Human Services and that the meals must meet certain dietary guidelines. These guidelines would limit salt and fats and refined sugar and increase things like fiber. This does not sound like it is happening though.

      I have worked in a couple of hospitals and I would guess that good food is the first thing out the window in the face of budget concerns because of the perceived expense of providing good, healthy and innovative menus. And if you have not noticed before, healthcare workers have some of the worst diets and a disproportionate number is in fact, over-weight.

      Doctors have their own lounges and pharmaceutical companies bring in only the best of the very best for the docs to eat. At the risk of sounding very bitter I think these pharmaceutical companies should show that they have some heart or soul and either provide these delicious meals to patients or perhaps cough up some dough and provide some grant opportunities to improve hospital food!

      A good jumping off point would be attaining a grant to do a pilot with some well defined outcomes and some rigorous methodologies so that the meal program could be replicated in other hospitals. If anyone can do this I know for a fact that not only will the patients love you but the families, doctors, nurses, support staff, and administrators will as well! You might even score an invite to the White House for a congressional medal of honor- who knows?

      I know that some grant money was given to a mid-western school to start a school lunch program that was extremely innovative. As I recall a chef was brought in and organic food was used and some really great menus were developed. It tuned out that these menus were not only healthier but also cost less than the contracted vendors that the school had previously used. If anyone can recall the program, the school, or the source of the funding then that would be a good start. Any grant writing hounds out there with some time on their hands that want to do some research?

      What a fantastic topic!!!!

    2. It is truly a sorry state of affairs – glad you brought it up. I am a former hospital dietitian and the food was an embarrassment in both of the hospitals I worked at. Thankfully in the newborn intensive care unit where I worked there wasn’t any food to be served, of course, save breastmilk and formula.

      Western medicine is focused on medication and procedures, not on holistic treatment which would include decent, nourishing food. The hospitals where I have worked emphasize “comfort food” rather than trying to make sick people eat something they aren’t familiar with, but that gets distorted into Denny’s-style food. Processed food is cheaper - in the short-term.

      Registered dietitians (who generally head hospital foodservice) are well trained in chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and food science. We are more than qualified to analyze food and diets for fat, carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals. We are the best people to recommend supplements or intravenous nutrition. But our schooling does not necessarily include food, cooking, or cuisine. It does not include the cultural, psychological and spiritual implications of food and how food is eaten, particularly when one is sick in the hospital. I currently train dietetic interns and half of them can’t follow a simple recipe and aren’t familiar with ingredients or cooking terms. It has become my personal mission to educate the six I get each year. Otherwise, what dietitians know about food often comes from food processors and manufacturers. Or from USDA. Also, a significant percentage of dietitians get into nutrition as an attempt to solve their own disordered eating.

      Most hospital foodservice is run by foodservice corporations like Sodexho and Morrison whose interests are not in patient care or patient health, and certainly not in food. Plus, the powerful supplement corps. (Nestle, Ross, etc) lobby dietitians heavily so we recommend a can of Ensure instead of a wholesome snack of real food. The American Dietetic Association annual meeting is a frightening melee of dietitians stuffing bags with samples of Splenda.

      What’s being done? Sadly, I don’t see much coming from dietitians with the exception of Field to Plate, which trains dietitians and food service people

      These organizations need to hear from all of us:
      American Dietetic Association
      ADA Food and Culinary Professionals

      1. My understanding is that, at least for some hospitals, the continuation of the use of unappetizing food is encouraged by the desire to get patients out quickly. I thought this was urban myth, but I've had more than one medical person tell me tales to make me reconsider.

        1. I'm gonna have to post this info again, aren't I?

          Maybe in a "hospital food" thread people won't go "yuck."

          See what Britain's up to:

          Let me again particularly recommend

          See their "flexi menu", their wide array of choices, their ideas for 24-hour catering, and more.

          I can also say, about American hospitals, that my 2-week stay 5 years ago offered tasty and balanced meals, plus snacks, and I still lost weight (a good thing for me) without feeling hungry. And I ate every darned thing on every plate. Maybe I "lucked out", I know hospitals vary widely. But I went to visit a friend 6 months ago and found the "run of the mill" hospital I knew at that address modernized, every room private, food anytime you wanted, and it was good.

          HOWEVER, aside from the food, the hospital I was in years ago had changed in one respect: I attribute it entirely to financial concerns that the nursing staff gave me a very poor impression - I wouldn'tr want to be stuck there these days for fear of my life.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Wayne Keyser
            janet of reno

            I recently had the misfortune of spending the night in a hospital far from home (with no one to bring me goodies...). Because surgery was a possibility when I was admitted, I wasn't allowed any food that night. the next day breakfast was adequate and reasonably healthy...probably my biggest complaint was that the oatmeal was a little cold...but I got them to heat it up in the microwave. I had oatmeal, wheat toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee, and a half grapefruit. Not a bad breakfast. Oh, and a non-food observation: the ER that night was packed. A total zoo. But the hospital floor was empty. Thirty beds and three people. I think that the insurance companies are all encouraging the docs to see the patients in ER and send them home.....

            1. re: Wayne Keyser

              Thank you. I had seen a reference to this in the article about the organic farmers/nutritionists initiative in Britain, but I appreciate the chance to look in-depth at this program. I was hoping perhaps that something was being done in the U.S.

            2. It is my understanding that hospital food is Rocco's next calling.