Prescription for Change: Hospital foodservice gets healthier with infusion of local food

local strawberries

local strawberriesCutting up fresh vegetables and serv­ing local strawberries may not sound revolutionary, but it’s big news at The Scarborough Hospital in Toronto where an energetic chef has a year to stir things up thanks to a $190,000 grant from the Ontario government’s Greenbelt Fund.

Anne­Marie Males, vice-­president of Patient Experience at the 324­-bed hospital, went looking for ways to improve food at the facility after becoming increasingly dis­tressed by the lack of attention paid to feeding today’s patients.

“When you think of being home sick with your mom, food is a critical compo­nent,” said Males, who writes restaurant reviews for the Toronto Sun. “Yet over the years, hospitals have taken the budget out of foodservices because it’s a support serv­ice, something we have to do and not something we consider as part of care,” she says. “We’re not fine dining, but we should be able to do better and serve simple quali­ty food to some of the most vulnerable members of society.”

Males found cash to upgrade kitchen equipment and buy an automatic potato peeler — grateful that Scarborough still has a kitchen in these days of cold plate and retherm. But the foodservice staff (22 full­time and 45 part­time) is so tightly scheduled, there’s been no time to think about improving patient food. “We’ve continued to do things the way we’ve always done them — without looking at what’s new in procurement and what the opportunities might be,” she says.

Enter Joshna Maharaj, a George Brown culinary graduate and Toronto food activist, hired in June to increase local food on the menu by at least 10 per cent. Her goal is to create new recipes and get the hospital’s caring kitchen team — famous for its banana bread — excited about preparing meals with fresh ingredients.  

My biggest challenge is to untangle the web of everything that exists in support of an industrialized food system,” says Maharaj, who sharpened her knife skills at non­-profit agencies such as The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. “That’s proving to be a bigger challenge than just getting fresh food on plates. There are tremendous people ready and waiting to start delivering farm­-fresh food to your door.”

In the ’80s, The Scarborough Hospital employed 17 cooks and broke down whole sides of animals in its butcher shop. There’s even a room that may have been a root cel­lar.  “It’s like a fairy tale,” says Maharaj. Today, she says, Scarborough has one “incredibly high-­output, crazy­-organized woman” for hot prep and no knives, since everything arrives chopped, peeled and frozen, often shipped in from the U.S.

As a first step, Maharaj brought in 20 flats of Ontario strawberries through Toronto distributor 100km Foods Inc. and took staff from the dish pit to wash, hull and portion them for patient trays. Each bowl arrived with a note informing patients who grew the berries and what nutrients they contain.

“My biggest advice to other institutions is to go full force or don’t go at all,” says Maharaj. “Don’t think you can suddenly put local carrots in a soup and you’ve done your job. Be serious about it and be committed to what it really means. Otherwise it’s superficial and treats local food as a specialty food item, which is not the point of all this.”

Soups On: a Chef’s Dream

When chef Joshna Maharaj eyes the kettles sitting unused in Ontario’s Scarborough Hospital kitchen, built in 1956, she dreams of making soup from scratch, not powdered broth. “There are six big soup kettles here ready and waiting,” says Maharaj. “There’s no reason why we can’t figure out a way to get some bones and vegetable scraps and make a good chicken broth.” For Maharaj and Anne-Marie Males, the hospital’s vice-president of Patient Experience, soup is a terrific way to accommodate patients in one of the most diverse communities in Canada. “Soup is a universal comfort food,” says Males.

If you make chicken noodle soup and congee (Asian rice porridge) you’ve covered comfort food for a huge proportion of the world.” Maharaj plans to start simply, by sautéeing onions and garlic as a base for soup. She’s also working on dietitian approved versions of her favourite Indian comfort food, starting with chana masala or chick-pea curry. She envisions making batches and freezing them. “I can’t wait to hear the patient feedback when we start sending up plates of more wholesome food,” she says. Serving more diverse food may also help save money by lowering the significant tray waste all hospitals face. Bedside ordering — having staff take lunch and dinner orders on a tablet — is another useful tool, says Males. This way patients can choose food they find appealing and may actually eat.

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