SPECIAL REPORT

Gadgets for grown-ups

DANYLO HAWALESHKA December 14 1998
SPECIAL REPORT

Gadgets for grown-ups

DANYLO HAWALESHKA December 14 1998

Hospital food fight

Health

Winnipeggers balk at 're-thermalized' meals

On Oct. 8, the first day of a new food service at Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Centre, breakfast arrived late. Florence Dauphinais was on hand to help her husband, 72-year-old patient Duncan Dauphinais, with his meal. When she finally opened the tray, she was horrified. There was nothing on it but a slice of toast, burned black on the outside and still frozen in the middle. “It was soggy,” Florence says. “I thought it was some kind of mistake.” Throughout Deer Lodge, a 497-bed long-term care facility, there were similar expressions of dismay. One patient received only a packet of peanut butter. Another found half-frozen eggs and watery cauliflower soup. It was an inauspicious introduction to Canada’s largest experiment with centralized hospital food preparation, and the patients are still finding it hard to digest.

Under Winnipeg’s new plan, meals are prepared in Toronto by Aramark Canada Ltd., which also supplies food to such institutions as universities, oil rigs and jails. Packaged and frozen, the meals are shipped to Winnipeg to be “re-thermalized” as needed in a new, $21million commissary built to serve the participating nine hospitals. Manitoba’s initiative follows similar, equally controversial, moves in other provinces. In 1995, elderly patients at New Brunswick’s 12 hospitals and healthcare centres held news conferences at bed-

side, challenging politicians to try to stomach prepackaged meals supplied by the Torontobased Bitove Corp. Some mailed reheated, soggy hamburgers to then-Premier Frank McKenna. But the Liberal government stood firm, the system stayed, and by last May the patient satisfaction rate had crept up from a failing 42 to a barely passing 55 per cent.

British Columbia introduced a similar plan, also operated by Bitove, at the Forensic Psychiatric Institute in Port Coquitlam in 1988. Patients outraged by the frozen meal system ultimately took their complaints to the provincial ombudsman’s office, and in 1994 the hospital reverted to preparing food in its own kitchen.

In Winnipeg, one dietitian familiar with the program says the new meals are designed to contain all the nutrients required for a healthy diet. “The problem,” she adds, “is getting the food through the patients’ mouths.” One Deer Lodge nurse, confiding that staff members have been discouraged from speaking to the media, said barely half the patients on her ward can tolerate more than small amounts of the new food. “I’ve watched nurses walking around with tears in their eyes, they’re so frustrated,” she says. “My patients have lost an average of six pounds in this last month.”

At the Urban Shared Services Corp., a non-

profit organization representing the nine hospitals, officials say the plan is generally going well. ‘We’re getting favorable reviews from everywhere except Deer Lodge,” says CEO Joe Sheil. ‘We only serve one kind of food, and that’s good food. At some point, the hospital staff have to take some responsibility. For example, there have been cases of food trays being left on the nursing floor for 45 minutes before being served.”

But even savings forecasts are coming under question. The nine hospitals estimate the Aramark food plan will ¿ trim $5.9 million a year from the cost I of preparing meals and operating hos£ pital kitchens. However, a University of < Winnipeg economist Philippe Cyrenne, I says that, quite apart from how it g scores on taste tests, the new food is S unlikely to be a financial success. In a study he conducted for the Manitoba section of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba, a watchdog group concerned with corporate practices and ethics, he concluded the real savings will likely be in the region of $500,000 a year, once debt servicing on the new commissary is factored in.

At Deer Lodge, Florence Dauphinais gathered 1,600 names on a petition to protest the food. On Nov. 4, she and a group of wheelchair-bound seniors travelled to the Manitoba legislature to present the petition to Health Minister Darren Praznik. But Praznik had chosen that day to visit Deer Lodge and taste the food on his own. “He took one spoonful,” said a nurse who was present when he sampled the lunch, “made a face, and said, ‘Hmm, not bad for institutional food. It’s not a restaurant.’ But then he put the spoon down and said thanks, but he’d eaten already.”

Dauphinais, a war veteran who fought his way across France and Holland with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, moved into Deer Lodge after suffering a stroke 2M> years ago. Most of his fellow residents in the modern long-term facility are veterans. With its pleasant architecture, comfortable rooms and large windows overlooking the wooded Assiniboine riverbank, Deer Lodge suited Dauphinais’s needs—until Oct. 8. The new food may be adequate for patients in the other hospitals, allows Florence Dauphinais, because they are all short-term facilities. “But Deer Lodge is different,” she adds. “People live here. They can’t eat slop day after day.” Dauphinais is taking her battle to the public, talking to reporters and on open-line radio programs. ‘This is nothing more than euthanasia against old people,” she says, “and I want everybody to know about it.” But the bizarre meals keep coming, she says. “One night the patients got cream of wheat for supper. It came with a side order of beef gravy.”

JAKE MACDONALD in Winnipeg