Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hospital Chow, Then and Now

Anyone who said in 1950 the food at Sacred Heart Hospital in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, was just fine would have been viewed with suspicion.

Anyone in 2010 who said the food at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was not very good probably was there for a mental health adjustment.

Patient meal service at both hospitals was neat, orderly, and sanitary. There the similarities pretty much end. Except for those with a special diet need, all Sacred Heart patients got a standard meal three times a day. Breakfast arrived at an ungodly early hour, and everybody was abruptly awakened from slumber when it arrived. Many complained about that. Almost everyone said the food at all meals was “bland” or “tasteless” and few or no condiments were provided to make it tastier.

Lots of patients I visited toyed with chunks of plain Jell-O or small mounds of unappealing steamed veggies. I don’t remember seeing anyone eat everything on a tray. Trays were sectioned, as they were in those days in school cafeterias and the U. S. Army. Patients who weighed 97 pounds got the same portions as those who weighed 307 pounds. The bigger people complained, loudly sometimes, that they were hungry much of the time. Sometimes those complaints brought portion adjustments, sometimes not.

Complaints about hospital food were widespread. Sacred Heart was a well-run hospital and patient care was good. Meals appeared to be balanced nutritionally. In the 50s, just about everybody who had been hospitalized anywhere complained about the food. Across America, the hospital food service systems were much different than what I encountered at Borgess recently.

Meals at Borgess are customized for every patient, as they probably are nowadays at many other hospitals. The menu resembles a condensed Applebee’s list of offerings. With 11 entrees for lunch or dinner and an array of pastas, salads, desserts, and other individual items to choose from, it is possible to construct a five-course meal akin to those served on cruise ships. The Borgess food is not as elegant as that served on the better cruise liners we’ve sailed on, but it’s as good as some we’ve enjoyed on the lower cost ships.

As at Applebee’s, symbols indicate the healthier items on the Borgess menu. But you can get a cheeseburger, pizza, hotdog, or other fast-food favorites that are contributing to obesity in America. That is, you can, if the medical staff has not put a restriction on your diet that your order would violate.

I had a salt restriction during my Borgess stay. So, when I picked up the phone to order any meal, the order taker tapped into a computer program that automatically matched anything I ordered to the amount of salt I was allowed to have. Once, I ordered a Caesar salad, but I couldn’t have Caesar dressing because that put me over the total allowable salt level for my meal. The order taker suggested alternative dressings with less salt, or other salads. We worked it out to my and the computer’s satisfaction. The computer program might also have been calculating calories, but I never ran into that kind of limit.

One might think the order takers would try to exert a lot of pressure on patients to select the healthier menu choices, but they didn’t. As part of a lifelong battle against excess blubber, I seldom eat desserts. As I was about to order my last Borgess meal, a personal care associate recommended a dessert that sounded healthy to me, so I went for it. The order taker asked, “Aren’t you going to have some ice cream with that?” I succumbed to the temptation. There was nothing low-fat or low-cal about the generous portion of vanilla that arrived with lunch. But it sure was good.

Breakfast at Borgess is served at a reasonable time. Patients have about an hour-long window to order it and other meals, and delivery is within 45 minutes. Caregivers can, and do, order full meals or special snacks for patients outside the standard ordering times.

Meals are delivered by cafeteria personnel in snappy black-and-white uniforms. They announce “Room Service,” not “Dinner” or “Lunch,” a nice touch. It’s the kind of delivery you would expect in a good hotel, and the food is as good as or better than typical hotel fare brought to rooms.

Several caregivers told me people with no connection to the hospital often visit the Borgess cafeteria for lunch. Some are regulars. And quality and variety are the attractions, not the prices. I was told prices are reasonable, but higher than at some other Kalamazoo eateries.

I joked about it with the nurse who was checking me out, but secretly wished for a couple of hours delay in my discharge from Borgess . . . so I could have one more dinner there.

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