Editor's note: Over the next 12 days, Globe B.C. will be running two regular daily features in keeping with the holiday season: Things That Work (where we profile a B.C. program, policy or organization that's having a positive impact, against the odds) and The Advocate (a snapshot of a not-so-bold-faced local name making a difference, at home or abroad). Today, we launch both series: examining an innovative Vancouver Island initiative to make hospital food (gasp) palatable and, here, introducing you to a Richmond plumber with a heart of gold. – Matt O'Grady
James Bird hopes to be discharged from hospital before Christmas. But as he awaits surgery, the 85-year-old patient at Royal Jubilee at least can enjoy the hospital food.
Go ahead, read that again.
One night this week, Mr. Bird opted for the wild Pacific salmon with wild rice and snap peas for supper. "It was nice," he said. "No complaints."
A year ago, the odds were much higher that he would have had something to complain about. The private-sector contractor providing the meals at Royal Jubilee was scoring poorly on patient surveys. Patients had little control over their meals, and by the time a tray arrived at a ward on, say, the seventh floor, it was past its prime.
But a new food system that gives patients a restaurant-style menu with dozens of options, along with cooking innovations to improve food quality, has turned around a system renowned for – to be blunt – wretched meals.
Beyond the satisfaction surveys, the ick factor was evident in the mounds of uneaten meals tossed into the compost bins – 13 tonnes of food that patients could not, would not, eat each month.
"Our patients weren't satisfied," said Joe Murphy, the Vancouver Island Health Authority's vice-president for operations. "We wanted a system that would meet nutritional guidelines and allow patients a choice. And we wanted it to arrive not overdue, not cold, not mushy."
Today, the amount of food waste has shrunk by 38 per cent. That means patients are eating 6,000 kilograms more each month at the two Victoria-area hospitals where the cooking system has been overhauled over the past year.
The entrees range from tilapia filet with baby roast potatoes to vegetable dal over quinoa grains. The most popular picks include sweet curried chicken and beef pot roast with mashed potatoes.
The new system was rolled out at Royal Jubilee Hospital last January, and at Victoria General Hospital in the spring. Since then, patient satisfaction with the food has climbed from a low of 56 per cent to 90 per cent – the highest level since the Compass Group took over food services in 2004.
The first difference that patients see is when they are approached by a "hospital associate," armed with a touch-screen laptop about two hours before mealtime, to take their order. There are separate menus for diabetics, for vegetarians, for people on restricted fibre diets or on kidney dialysis. There are nearly 100 combinations of choices, from appetizers to desserts.
Behind the scenes, the technology has changed as well. Meals are assembled on ceramic plates in a cold room where a specialized machine seals each plate with a plastic cover. Each cover has a valve that allows food to cook with steam pressure, a patented system that is also in use in several Ontario hospitals.
The plates are then transferred to another refrigerated locker, where workers dressed in fleece vests and toques assemble individual orders. Instead of transporting cooked food from a central kitchen across the 14-hectare Royal Jubilee campus, the food is heated in small pantries that are now located near each ward, in batches of five or six meals at a time, so that it is delivered to the bedside within minutes of cooking.
The flavours lean toward the bland – in part because the hospitals are ahead of schedule to meet the province's new low-sodium requirements. But it is also the result of seeking to please more than 750 captive customers each day. Sampling the menu offering one day this week, one diner declared the chana masala had "a kick," another found it disappointingly mild. (Nothing a little sriracha hot sauce wouldn't fix.)
The cost to the Vancouver Island Health Authority is an extra $790,000 a year. That works out to about $3 per patient, per day. Mr. Murphy, who has sampled almost every dish, says it is a worthwhile investment. "People are eating."