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Upside Down - Totally Cowed and Left Facing Hospital Food

When life got turned upside down after a freak bovine accident, our food standards were thrown off course.

Hours after my last post about the food challenge, I found myself beside my husband’s hospital bed opening up individually wrapped food items all with very chemical sounding ingredients. I was struck by the irony.

My husband had gone running with our dog, on land near a cattle grazing area, where he has run daily for years, but Wednesday night he got in between a cow and her calf. The angry bovine came charging at him full force and threw him upside down in the air, off the road and onto his head. His neck hyperextended and shocked his spine, leaving him flat on his back unable to move his arms.  He was eventually able to roll and get up to walk home, where dinner had been laid out.  Instead of eating that dinner we got to call 9-1-1, and I got to follow the ambulance while he was transported on the mummy board.

There we were at the hospital, where after many tests, much discussion and debate, the treatment team decided he could eat some food.

The hospital’s definition of food really took me aback.  If you’ve ever talked to any of the on staff nutritionists there, they all say the same basic information; eat lots of leafy greens, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and small amounts of sugar and fat.  Obviously the people preparing the hospital food trays haven’t actually consulted with the nutritionists there.  On his tray were big fluffy white flour pancakes, a bucket of syrup (flavored corn syrup), a muffin that may have contained a ½ teaspoon of fruit, fruit juice, three sausages, and a box of milk.  It would have made a 50s diner proud.  

Also apparent was the complete disregard for the need for the reduction of garbage, particularly plastic garbage. Each item was thoroughly encased in plastic.  His next meal even included an individually wrapped orange, as though an orange peel wasn’t sufficient packaging.

Nothing on the tray was locally produced, organically grown, or unprocessed.  The irony of being in a place of wellness, where your health is the top priority, the food choices simply did not measure up to the standards that I hold myself to.  I realized that I am not at all in the norm and that probably they don’t get too many complaints about their big fluffy pancakes that taste quite good, but the stark contrast between the food I provide my family and the food on that tray truly shocked me.  I was sent out to find “real food” for him to eat.

Institutions like hospitals seem to aim for middle ground and hit on popular foods that are inexpensive and easy to produce in quantity. Your health takes a back seat when that tray comes around.  So does their own nutrition education.  It seems that these trays could be the perfect tools for patient education.  They could show patients that organic whole wheat pumpkin waffles with local apple butter tastes even more delicious than the pale fluffy variety.  

Schools too can use their lunch trays as educational tools, instead of simply chicken nugget delivery.  Some lunch programs, ChoiceLunch for instance are working to do exactly that. With healthy, local, organic choices available everyday, ChoiceLunch is leading the way of healthy food education during the lunch hour. Alice Waters has been advocating “Lunch Education” for years, and has shown that the more connected kids are to their food the healthier their choices become.

Considering the great cost of health care  of poor nutrition based illnesses including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, it would seem that hospitals would do everything possible to be an example of exactly how you should eat.  Anyone who’s been desperate for food during a family member’s hospital stay and has looked at the ridiculously bad choices in the vending machines, knows that they simply are not doing that.  I’ve found myself reasoning that a Snickers bar might be more nutritious than a Hersey’s because it has peanuts and a bit of protein. That is just not the example hospitals need to be setting.

Unless hospitals and schools begin to hear complaints about their tasty fluffy pancakes or piles of chicken nuggets they’ll probably continue to dish them up.  I, for one, intend to make a case for healthy food education on every tray.

Thankfully my husband is on the mend toward a full recovery. He’s regained use of his arms and will not need surgery. He’ll be walking instead of running for a while, but he’ll be back out there again I’m sure, although I’m hoping  he’ll be much more cautious around any bovines.




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Danielle October 16, 2011 at 05:08 PM
Stampede! Wow, hope your husband is on the mend. Oddly enough, this is not the first time I've heard of this happening as the mama cows (they look so benign in their fields don't they) tend to get a little protective after calving. Good story and fun headline!!
gavilan October 17, 2011 at 08:16 PM
Glad Fred is OK. Very scary! OK, devil's advocate: Plastic wrapping: hospitals are incubators and transmitters of bacteria and viruses. They are the place you are most likely to get sick. I am fine with everything being plastic wrapped and as safe as possible. Source of food: with health care costs rising at 3 to 5 times the rate of inflation, I empathize with hospitals buying the least expensive ingredients possible -- often not local or organic, and frequently more processed than we (or they) would like. Would be great if local, organic and most-healthy choices were also cheapest, but for a large institution, that is likely a frequent tension.
Kim Curiel October 18, 2011 at 01:41 AM
I was just speaking with my friend, Bruce, who was in the hospital and also received the fluffy pancakes and syrup for breakfast although he had reminded them that he is diabetic. His blood sugar skyrocketed after the meal and then they came and gave him "a belly full of insulin." The health care costs are skyrocketing due to obesity, and other food related diseases, in addition to out of control drug prices. The cost difference between decent food and the garbage they serve up is actually quite small compared to the cost of treating so many obese people. Teaching those obese people how to eat right could start on hospital trays, but it just doesn't. Although I understand that hospitals are the dirtiest places around and most filled with bacteria, encasing fruits like oranges or bananas in plastic is still ridiculous. I too am very glad that Fred will be okay. It has been very scary. Spine injury is no joke.
X October 18, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Those who don't want to eat healthy just start sneaking in outside food. At that point, the staff has no idea what or how much the patient has consumed which could prove problematic if the patient falls suddenly ill. If the healthier menu isn't mandatory, the hospital's food cost will rise. When surveyed, customers will demand that fast food eateries carry healthy menu options but in practice I couldn't sell them unless I offered a deep discount. On the other hand to prevent wasting money, it meant my family wound up eating the healthier items because I'd bring them home.

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