Push for fresh, local hospital food across Canada over 'pitiful' alternatives

VANCOUVER — Wild salmon with lemon dill sauce, blueberry soup and bone broth may be high-end restaurant meals but they're also on the menu at some Canadian hospitals aiming to meet recovering patients' nutritional and cultural needs.

The recipes are among dozens that have been developed by 26 people, including food-service managers, chefs and dieticians who were offered two-year fellowships at hospitals from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador as part of a campaign called Nourish Health.

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Its goal is to help create institutional policies through nourishing meals made from locally bought ingredients for patients who may have been accustomed to powdered mashed potatoes as a mainstay of "hospital food."

Norish Health spokeswoman Hayley Lapalme said the initiative, predominately funded by the McConnell Foundation, also aims to elevate the role of food as an important part of healing, though food services are categorized with other expenditures such as laundry and parking.

Two hospitals in Haida Gwaii, B.C., on the province's west coast, have been part of the program that has allowed staff to use traditional ingredients such as wild salmon, cod and halibut in the region where half the population is Indigenous.

Shelly Crack, a dietician for Northern Health, said much of the food served at the facilities was brought in from other provinces and countries, adding to transportation and environmental costs when fish, berries and vegetables were available locally.

"A lot of our elders like the salmon served lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, with sauces served on the side," said Crack, adding traditional foods have helped people connect to positive experiences from their early years, and that has promoted healing.

"It almost brings them right back to the land and memories of family and harvesting food. It's that connection to culture and family, this feeling of well-being.

Health-care policy leaders, doctors and those involved in the national fellowship will be attending the Food for Health Symposium in Toronto on Wednesday and Thursday to showcase sustainable recipes that could be included on hospital menus in 2030, decades after governments across the country contracted out food services at most facilities as a cost-saving measure.

Alex Munter, CEO of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said the Ottawa facility became the first in Canada to introduce room service 15 years ago.

He said offerings like dim sum, butter chicken and tacos drove up patients' satisfaction with food from 30 per cent to 98 per cent while lowering expenses because food was being eaten, not tossed in the garbage.

"We're about healing and nourishing and not about feeding," Munter said of the room-service model most common in the United States.

"Since 2015, we've been providing local and sustainable menus for patients and families," he said. "If your child is here you can order off the menu as well as in the cafeteria."

Munter said the hospital's chef, Simon Wiseman, is among the 26 "innovators" in the Nourish initiative and last week created a tofu dish as a potential contender in a competition at the symposium.

The focus was zero waste, and even the plate was made of wheat, Munter said.

Toronto chef Joshna Maharaj said she helped create a healthy menu at the Scarborough Hospital in Ontario as part of a one-year pilot project in 2011, when she cooked food on site with staff whose cooking skills had gone to waste after years of reheating trucked-in frozen meals.

However, she said the program was not continued due to unrelated policy changes.

Maharaj said food served at most hospitals may be deemed nutritiously adequate, but it falls far short of what is healthy for sick people, as she recently learned after a day surgery that required a tube to be put down her throat.

She said a slushie or a sorbet would have been ideal but she decided ice cubes and ginger ale would suffice after "a most pitiful egg salad sandwich with dry corners" got stuck to the roof of her mouth.

"The deep insult of it was what hit me," Maharaj said, adding she's decided to spend her career advocating for healthy hospital food.

"Once we deal with the food on the plate there's a much broader opportunity for institutions to support health and wellness and make wonderful financial impacts in the local economy and the agriculture economy. We have a sad, sad lack of vision about this in the country, which is why I'm attempting to scream and yell so loudly."

— Follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter.

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