Unappealing meals at Winnipeg hospital part of broader ‘systemic failure on the tray’: national organization

A relative of a man recently hospitalized in Winnipeg says patients are being served unappetizing meals, and he questions whether they meet the nutritional needs of people recovering from illness or injury.

Thomas Rempel-Ong’s brother-in-law broke his femur during the August long weekend, and was sent to Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for immediate surgery.

Rempel-Ong soon started to get photos of the unappealing meals his brother-in-law was served as he was trying to recover following his surgery.

“The diplomatic response was that everything that he was trying to eat was completely bland, there was no flavour,” said Rempel-Ong. 

“It looked unappetizing and almost like it was made by the lowest bidder.” 

What stood out in the photos was the small portion sizes, the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, and just how unpleasant the food looked on the plate, he said.

A small breakfast served at HSC to Rempel-Ong’s brother-in-law, who was recovering from surgery after breaking his femur. The ‘bare-bones diet … definitely did not help his recovery,’ says Rempel-Ong. (Submitted by Thomas Rempel-Ong)

A spokesperson for Manitoba Shared Health said that HSC’s meal plan costs $26 per day per patient — a price which includes meals, snacks, supplies and salaries. 

The food services department at HSC “uses nutrition specifications and testing when sourcing foods to meet high quality standards,” the spokesperson for the provincial health organization wrote in a statement to CBC.

The menus offer fruits and vegetables throughout the day, “with additional availability of fresh fruits and salad upon request,” the statement said.

Meals ‘did not help’ recovery

Rempel-Ong looked up the hospital’s food policies, and found that adult patients are supposed to receive a minimum of 1,800 calories per day.

According to Shared Health, the HSC meal plan follows recommendations from clinical dietitians with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, based on sources such as Canada’s Food Guide and “literary evidence.”

“Based on the evidence, the expert review group recommended providing a minimum of 1,800 calories per day based on a weekly average,” the Shared Health spokesperson said.

Based on the photos Rempel-Ong saw, he wondered if that’s how many calories his brother-in-law was actually being served. 

Rempel-Ong says his brother-in-law sent him many photos of the meals he received at HSC. The food was unappealing and bland, and the serving sizes were too small, he says. (Submitted by Thomas Rempel-Ong)

“To be trying to start recovering from that major injury and to be put on — I would say — a bare-bones diet just completely out of the blue, it definitely did not help his recovery,” he said.

“I just can’t believe that this is acceptable.… It almost looks like we’re putting patients on, for a lack of a better term, a starvation diet.”

Rempel-Ong says his brother-in-law checked himself out of the hospital a week later, choosing to recover from surgery at his home just outside of Winnipeg, where he wouldn’t have to rely on hospital meals. 

Hospital food ‘notoriously not beloved’

There have been efforts to make changes to meals at hospitals across the country, including a push to have traditional and wild foods included in meal plans. 

The problem is that food is often not seen as part of health care, “when it truly is,” said Hayley Lapalme, co-executive director of Nourish Leadership.

Her non-profit organization works with public and private care providers in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario — but not any at Manitoba at this point — to create meal plans that consider how food can be part of a holistic care plan for patients.

“Unfortunately, I think hospital food is notoriously not beloved across the country. But I really see it not as an isolated or individual failure of a facility or of staff there, but it’s really a systemic failure on the tray,” said Lapalme.

“And it’s one, I think, that dates back to a mindset really that food is ancillary to the care that’s provided in a health-care setting.”

A man wearing glasses and a grey T-shirt sits outside.
Thomas Rempel-Ong says to help his brother-in-law in his recovery, he dropped off a care package. ‘You can still have a full, wholesome diet without salt in it,’ he said. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Rempel-Ong says his brother-in-law was put on a low-sodium diet, to reduce the risk of inflammation after surgery, but he says that limit should not mean the food being served is bland and unpleasant. 

“You can still have a full, wholesome diet without salt in it,” he said.

To help his brother-in-law in his recovery, Rempel-Ong dropped off a care package, which included high-protein snacks, sparking water, and no-salt-added seasoning to make his hospital meals more palatable — but he notes some patients might not be in a position to supplement their diet.

Nourish Leadership says when health care facilities provide more appealing and flavourful food, patients are not only more happy, but actually spend less time in hospital. 

“We know that a patient in a hospital who is malnourished is going to stay … two to three days longer than a well-nourished patient,” said Lapalme. 

“They’ll cost the whole system $2,000 more just in that one incident.” 

Bad food can also contribute to waste, Laplame said.

“There ends up being 40 per cent of food in hospitals … and long-term care wasted, which contributes to health care’s already enormous greenhouse gas emissions.”

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