Hospital food. For some, the very term sounds like an oxymoron. But healthcare institutions in Ontario are starting to pick up some of the foodie trends that have become so pervasive in society of late.
Values like local, fresh, healthy and, of course, deliciousness are beginning to enter the hospital sphere, with Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital leading by example.
At last night’s panel discussion on strengthening local food connections in healthcare, held in a committee room at City Hall, the 20-odd attendees got the chance to, as moderator and Food Forward volunteer Linda Swanston put it, “play city councilors.”
Seated at spiraled tables and lavish leather chairs, participants listened to Heather Fletcher, Food Services Manager at St. Michael’s Hospital, as well as Franco Naccarato, program manager at the Greenbelt Fund, and Elena Hall, Green Team Member/Seed to Feed Organizer at Princess Margaret Hospital, discuss the methods and outcomes of incorporating fresh, local food into healthcare institutions, and got the opportunity to submit questions on the topic.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Definitions around local food aren’t easy to come by: In 2010 and 2011, when St. Michael’s Hospital began looking into ways of making their food-services department more sustainable, they found it difficult to get clear information on what constituted local food. They couldn’t find data comparing the cost of local procurement and conventional food purchases, and the origins of much of their current food products were unknown. Fletcher said that there was limited communication between parties along the distribution chain, a lack of knowledge about what local products were available (and when), and uncertainty about whether farmers and distributors were even aware of hospitals’ food needs.
2. Research showed St. Mike’s there was no reason not to go local: In 2012, St. Michael’s Hospital got a grant from the Broader Public Sector Investment Fund, which aims to increase the purchase of Ontario foods in public institutions. The money allowed St. Mike’s to hire a local-food coordinator and implement a local-food procurement strategy.
“We couldn’t find a reason not to do it—there was no downside,” Fletcher explained.
They discovered that the food-services budget and amount of labourers did not need to be increased, and that, in working within their existing framework, purchasing processes did not need to change.
“We went through competitive processes just like we do for all purchases … we found [some] new vendors who may not have participated before.”
Additionally, the introduction of local food generally lent itself to infusing a freshness into the patients’ meals that was previously lacking.
“There’s still a lot of research to be done [about the correlation between local food and freshness], but for us it was about putting fresh food on the patient’s menu,” Fletcher said.
“Freshness is important because of the perception of quality … we don’t have enough research to be able to say, ‘you’re going to have better health outcomes [from local or fresh food],’ but it was about quality and [improved] patient experience.”
Though the term of the grant is now finished and the local-food coordinator has moved on, the hospital is continuing to push ahead with the local food initiative; 38.5 per cent of food at St. Mike’s is now local, and the number is perceived to be growing. The current food-services philosophy is “when all things are equal, we buy local first.”
3. Local food led to a more excited staff: One of the most promising developments of “taking the ‘hospital’ out of hospital food,” said Fletcher, was that the food-services staff became much more engaged in their work. Having used a switch from frozen, imported vegetables to fresh, local vegetables as a starting point, staff seemed to “come alive,” and began to refer to the local-food project as “putting the love back in.”
Naccarato pointed out that, though healthcare facilities arguably have the most restrictions around food of all public institutions, from what he has generally seen among hospital staff, there is a great deal of optimism and excitement about becoming more innovative with meal plans.
“They really see the value of putting the love back in.”
4. Local food has contributed to greater patient satisfaction at St. Mike’s: In collecting data on patient satisfaction with food, St. Mike’s found that the number of surveyed patients who rated the hospital food as “excellent” increased by a whopping 206 per cent since local food was introduced. Feedback forms show many patients are pleased with the freshness and high quality of the food, even if they are not specifically aware of, or concerned with, the food being local.
Elena Hall, who facilitates a community garden project with the University Health Network and Scadding Court Community Centre, said that Seed to Feed helps hospital staff and patients deepen their relationship with food by participating in hands-on growing.
“The space itself is very nurturing … it provides a space for mental and physical relaxation.”
5. Garlic roasted mashed potatoes make patients particularly happy: St. Mike’s continues to collect data on patient satisfaction, and has found that, as staff get creative and experiment with recipes according to the season, the dish that’s got patients raving (well, as much as one can rave when sick) is the garlic roasted mashed potatoes.