Before we talk about what is tough to swallow (hint: 21 day standardized menu for seniors in LTC facilities) let me tell you about mustard bean pickle.
My friend Kirsten unleashed an animated facebook exchange when she said she’d spent the weekend making mustard bean pickle. Some of us said mustard bean what?? Others demanded the recipe ASAP!!! We were all fully engaged in the quest for mustard bean pickle.
Mustard bean pickle is a condiment created under extremely trying circumstances—anyone who’s canned anything knows that it’s a hot sticky procedure performed on an unseasonably hot, usually muggy,afternoon. (Apparently there’s no point in canning if you don’t run the risk of succumbing to heat exhaustion.)
Not only does mustard bean pickle taste like nothing you’ve ever tasted before, fresh and sharp on the tongue, but it comes loaded with memories…like Uncle Frank’s root cellar.
My Uncle Frank was a Hungarian immigrant who’d come to Canada before WW2. He owned a produce farm in Saskatchewan. The root cellar was buried in a hillside; a semi-spooky place accessible through a tiny Hobbit* door. It was pitch black inside, cool and earthy. Uncle Frank fiddled with the kerosene lamp while my little sister and I waited in hushed silence for that gauze sock thingy to ignite and flood the space with light, revealing bushels of potatoes, carrots and turnips waiting to be carted back to the house and turned into delicious food. What an adventure!
Mustard bean pickle is much more than food. But then again, for most of us, food is more than fuel to be ingested for the sole purpose of recharging the body for one more day. Food is an excuse to congregate with the family, to catch up with friends or to simply break up the tedium of the day (Starbucks anybody?). Which brings me to the Alberta Health Services 21 day standardized menu.
In 2009, AHS implemented the 21 day standardized menu in 78 hospitals and nursing homes across Alberta. Goodbye fresh food, locally grown and prepared on site. Hello “food” purchased in bulk, pre-cooked, prepackaged and shipped to Alberta from other provinces and the US. That potato nestled in its cubby on the plastic “plate” started life in Idaho, detoured to El Paso for processing and bumped along in the back of a truck for days before it hit the steam tray and found its way to the seniors’ lunch room.
How bad is it? Check out the video Tough to Swallow created by the Alberta Union of Public Employees. The AUPE sent food critic John Gilchrist on a covert mission (complete with hidden camera) to the Stettler Hospital and Care Centre to check out the menu. Mr Gilchrist does not mince words. He described the “food” as appalling, nasty, gluey and, in the case of the lowly potato, obscene.
Are there any redeeming features to the 21 day standardized menu? Apparently not. If the objective was to save money, the experiment is a miserable failure. Food costs rose 6 percent in the two years since the 21 day menu was implemented. And the so-called “ease of preparation” has damaged staff morale rather than improve it as caregivers fret over their inability to change an unpalatable situation.
For 3 years, seniors and their families pursued the government and AHS officials begging for the return of fresh local food. They’ve gotten absolutely nowhere.
The government/AHS say the food is satisfactory—after all that’s what their consultants tell them. We can speculate on whether seniors confined to a long term care facility have the wherewithal or the courage to voice their complaints to a government consultant; but one thing is certain, seniors no longer line up in eager anticipation outside the lunch room and their general health is suffering—AUPE staff have observed an increase in infections and slower healing since the implementation of the standardized menu.
And the government continues on its merry way, ignoring complaints and mouthing platitudes like the recent statement by Doug Horner, President of Treasury & Finance Minister who said (in connection with the 2011-12 budget) “Albertans have been very clear on their priorities—health, education and supporting the vulnerable. We’ve worked hard to meet expectations and we’ll stay focused on providing the programs, services and infrastructure to support them…**
Alberta’s seniors have resigned themselves to the fact that every day represents more and more subtracted from less and less.***Is it too much to ask this government to help Alberta’s seniors enjoy what little time they have left in the company of their friends and families over a delicious home-cooked meal? And please let it include Kirsten’s mustard bean pickle!
*nod to Kirsten for this great description
**NationTalk Online June 28, 2012
***Hitch 22, by Christopher Hitchens, p 4