Many of us may think "bland," "boring," and "colorless."
These descriptions can typically be spot on because you always seem to experience the overcooked vegetable, a white roll, and the obligatory cup of Jell-O.
Doesn't this seem like the ultimate contradiction?
People go into the hospital to recover and get healthy, but the foods that we most commonly associate with hospitals are far from nutritious! In fact, they are just the opposite! Even worse, many of these foods are ones that are contributing to the conditions that caused some patients to seek treatment in the first place (diabetes, heart disease and strokes, just to name a few).
What if it could look like this...?
You walk into your local hospital and, right after you see the signs directing you to check-in, you notice a big display telling you about the seasonal specials being served in the cafeteria that day. As you approach the cafeteria you notice signs on the wall with pictures of local farmers, along with a short bio of who they are and what they grow. The menu tells you about the local farmers and producers who supplied ingredients for the meals being served that day.
The cafeteria is bright and colorful with raised garden beds just off the patio outside with fresh produce and herbs that are freshly harvested each day for the meals.
The menu is filled with in-season ingredients and includes meals like Summertime Bolognese, Healthified Three Bean Salad served over fresh greens, Tropical Salmon Sandwich served on a whole wheat English muffin, Balsamic Watermelon Chicken Salad, and a Berry & Raw Brownie Parfait as the dessert of the day.
You look around and people seem to be energized and enjoying their food. People are rarely hypnotized with their phones, as they are enjoying conversation with the others at their table. Then you notice a cafeteria employee walking around offering samples of Chile Kohlrabi Fries. You ask what she is doing and she responds, "This is our way of trying to introduce people to healthy foods they may not be familiar with. A lot of people have never had kohlrabi before and, after they try these fries, they always ask where they can get a kohlrabi and how they can make those at home. It's also a great way to talk to people about kohlrabi being a cruciferous vegetable that is filled with antioxidants and cancer-fighting nutrients. We pass out samples of a different food every day to try to inspire people to eat a wider variety of healthy foods, and to discover how amazing they can taste!"
As your conversation continues, you discover the same kinds of foods served in the cafeteria are also served to the hospital patients. The cafeteria employee says that, once she gets done with the samples in the cafeteria, she will make rounds to the patient rooms passing out the same samples and talking to patients about how to eat healthy and make it taste delicious. She says, "Of course, we have to make sure the ingredients won't interfere with the patient's treatment in any way, but you would be amazed how much the patients look forward to their sample of the day!"
After enjoying your meal, and you are leaving the cafeteria, you notice the entrance to a "Teaching Kitchen" with the words "To Inspire and Educate" underneath. On the outside of the door there is a schedule of classes that are taking place throughout the day. Classes with topics such as "Becoming a Veggie Roasting Master," "No More Boring Salads," "Make Healthy Choices the Easy Choices," and "Propel Yourself Out of Processed Food Paradise." There are also weekly programs specifically tailored to new moms and people battling illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. You pick up a brochure, which talks more about the objective of the kitchen to educate patients, staff, and the community on how to eat healthfully - and how to make it second nature - in the midst of their busy lives.
There is even a sign with a big red "SOLD OUT" across it. It turns out the hospital is hosting a dinner featuring local farmers and a menu that highlights the in-season ingredients from their farms that they are supplying for the dinner. Must be a popular event!
Sound too good to be true?
Last week, we decided to visit one of our local hospitals to see what the current reality looks like. Let's just say it was not the pipe-dream picture described above.
As we were trying to find the cafeteria, we walked past a separate cafeteria that was just for doctors and other medical services providers. My husband jokingly said, "I bet the food is better in there." A nurse who overheard his comment turned around and responded, "Trust me, it's not." Yikes, we were not off to a good start!
We arrived at the cafeteria to find a selection of not-so-inspiring foods. There were a lot of brown and beige foods, but not a lot of other colors. We found Italian Sub sandwiches with smoked ham, salami, and pretty pathetic-looking lettuce and tomato slices on a white refined bun. You could get chips to go with your sandwich, although once you checked out the nutritional information you would discover one serving had 2,006 mg (yes, 2,006 mg!) of sodium.
And, there must have been a shortage of greens from the looks of the salad selection. They offered a Burger or a Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, which were pre-wrapped and looked like they had potentially been sitting there for a while. Of course, there were the staple Chicken Nuggets, and the daily special was Enchiladas (either Chicken & Cheese or Beef) that were served with pinto beans and rice. There was actually a quesadilla that sounded good on the menu (filled with spinach and goat cheese), but seeing the real thing left us a little disappointed.
There was a section loaded with sweet pastries, bagels and slices of cake (there were clearly no whole grains going in there). And there were refrigerators stocked with soda (Mountain Dew must be a crowd favorite), energy drinks and sugar-loaded frappuccinos, lattes and macchiatos.
We ended up splitting a couple things - the Chicken Southwestern Salad Bowl (not sure where the advertised avocado, black beans and corn were) and the Fattoush Salad (which included some shredded lettuce, a couple of cucumber slices, a few slices of red onion and some crunchy cherry tomatoes). I guess the pita bread on the side allowed it to qualify as a Fattoush Salad?!
Not very exciting!
If that's what healthy eating is really like, count us out!
There were very few people eating together and virtually everyone was engrossed in their phones. At the table next to us, a doctor was watching a video while "enjoying" his Doritos and chocolate milk. Honestly, everyone looked pretty miserable. We couldn't get out of there quick enough.
Why? Why? Why?
Maybe we just visited the wrong hospital. Or maybe - probably - this is exactly what you would find at many hospitals. Let's face it, hospitals and medical centers have become big business. And just like any other business, they have a responsibility to earn a profit for their shareholders (which doesn't always fully align with improving people's long-term health).
When it comes to food, this often means feeding as many people as possible for as little as possible. It may mean involving the procurement department to buy in bulk and get the best deal (just like buying syringes and hospital gowns). It may mean buying foods that ship easily, never go bad, and don't require a lot of kitchen skills to heat them up and get them ready to serve.
We can all probably agree, if we want our healthcare system to contribute to helping people achieve good health and vitality, something needs to change.
Fortunately, there is some exciting changes taking place...check these out!
...but much more is needed!
Do you know of a hospital doing great things in this category?
If you could wave a magic wand and make just one change, what would it be?
Please share with us!