By Susanne Martin, Managing Editor
While stir-fried Asian-style rice noodles with fresh seasonal vegetables and organic tofu is not an uncommon dish, it’s also not one you would expect to find on a trolley delivering in-patient hospital food. That it is on the menu in a health-care facility in Ontario is a sign that institutional kitchens are taking note of consumer preferences.
A discussion about “better-for-you” food has long been going on in the retail environment, but has yet to have a large impact on the public food service sector, says Dror Balshine, president of Sol Cuisine, a company that produces locally sourced tofu.
Sol Cuisine recently received funding from the Greenbelt Fund to support the introduction of local foods into public institutions, such as universities, schools, hospitals and prisons, and part of the exploration involves integrating healthy vegetable protein into menu items.
Chef Rafael Fayzano of Sol Cuisine – who designed the Asian rice noodle dish – says the warmest welcome came from colleges and universities, where students have been asking for the changes he hopes to promote.
“A lot of hospitals have moved toward fresh, prepared-in-front-of-you food in their cafeterias, but, from what I’ve seen, I can’t say the same about the food served to in-patients.”
Monica Kidd is a family physician and writer
While educational institutions were enthusiastic about the objective, working with health-care facilities has been more challenging, according to Balshine. “Sometimes the systems for serving patients don’t readily accommodate the integration of local and organic foods, which tend to be more seasonal.”
When it comes to healthy foods, health care is lagging behind, Balshine says, adding, “I find that a bit ironic.”
Monica Kidd agrees with the sentiment. As a family physician and writer, she has long advocated for healthier hospital food. “A lot of hospitals have moved toward fresh, prepared-in-front-of-you food in their cafeterias, but, from what I’ve seen, I can’t say the same about the food served to in-patients.”
Kidd believes it has to do with “economies of scale,” where hospitals put out tenders and often award the contract to the food service provider that comes in with the lowest bid. With a budget that is so constrained, what ends up on the plate may not be local or organic, or even the healthiest choice.
The prevalent reductionist thinking feeds that trend as food is often compartmentalized into “nutrition,” says Kidd. “If you are primarily concerned about the intake of macronutrients and micronutrients, what difference does it make whether the apple comes from China or the orchard down the road?”
Yet, to Kidd, “there is more to food than nutrition – it’s about community, the environment and sustainability.
“While good food is an important part of recovery for patients, and new mothers, for example, need healthy meals so they have the energy to breastfeed, a lot of important works needs to be done at the community health level,” she explains.
Kidd believes community health encompasses socio-economic well-being, which, in turn, can ensure access to good food.
There is a growing recognition of the various health and economic benefits to serving local and organic food in institutional kitchens. The government of Denmark, for example, has set the target of shifting 60 per cent of the food served in hospitals, schools, care homes and other public institutions to organic within the next two years, and supports the transition with government funding.
From the window at her hospital in Alberta, Kidd looks out onto a farmer’s field. “I’d like to think that supporting that farmer would play into the decision that my hospital makes about food,” she says, adding that large buyers of food potentially have a big influence on local food systems.
The connection to local suppliers is something Sol Cuisine cherishes, says Balshine. “We’ve been dealing with the same grower for over 10 years. The soybeans for our tofu are grown 130 miles from our facility. We even go and visit ‘our beans’ every summer to see how they are doing on the field.”
The company values this relationship, Balshine says, and he hopes to convey the sense of pride in products grown and processed locally and organically to the institutions he visits.
Click to view the Organic Week report.