Hospitals, Schools and Eating Food

Let’s Try Food

Let’s try feeding food instead of garbage to the people in our hospitals and schools.

I know some people are offended when I use the word garbage to reference things disguised as food.  I am unwilling to give those products the legitimacy of calling them junk food and it is nauseating that we live in a culture that needs the term real food.  

Some of this outrage is rooted in the fact that our society feeds this garbage to our most vulnerable populations.  Calling it garbage is a condemnation of this reality and forces us to face it for what it is.  The young, the old, the poor and the sick are most likely to be ingesting things that do not nourish.  

Let’s talk about that.

When I worked in a hospital, I was young, lived on Mt Dew from a machine, broke a tooth on hospital cafeteria “mashed potatoes” and would eat any garbage that was in the break room.  There were boxed chocolates for sale in the gift shop and sometimes they were dinner at midnight and breakfast at 6.  I bet I didn’t eat anything my body needed while I was at work for the better part of three years.  I wasn’t alone.  With one hungry exception, we were all gaining weight, relied on adrenaline and caffeine to keep us going and felt less than sympathetic toward some patients because, hey, we all felt like crap. Someone was always on some calorie counting, portion restricting program and short term diets were in and out of fashion as fast as you can say code.  

If you have never worked in a place like this, let me try to explain.

Hospital food is a running joke for a reason.  The food that comes out of most cafeterias is overcooked and not of high quality.  In many places the cafeteria is not even open at night, when the staff has to be awake and would like to eat.  Some have been invaded by fast food joints, which have a business model that doesn’t work with fresh or authentic.  So vending machines it is.

Then there is the food culture of the staff that can work against you.  When you are too busy to sit and eat, food becomes an afterthought.  When doughnuts make you a hero, the break room becomes a trap in a cycle of sugar countered by caffeine.  When you are a professional with more continuing education than any human could manage and a job that comes home with you in your rare times off, afterthoughts become never thoughts.

An OB once admitted to me she struggled counseling patients to eat better because she had eaten exclusively from a vending machine for 3 days, couldn’t remember her last salad and was gaining weight every month.  

A family physician explained to me there was no point in suggesting a plant based diet or any preventive measures to his patients because they won’t follow the advice anyway and he couldn’t remember his last real meal.

Medicine is the only field of work where you are required to tell people to watch their stress levels, get plenty of rest, exercise, and eat healthy-all while you are personally running on four hours of sleep, enough caffeine to kill a horse, shoving down a cold cheeseburger, while sprinting to see your next patient.  At least there is some exercise.- Charity Williams

The struggle isn’t only for the staff.  Our food system has simultaneously evolved and devolved and the garbage offered to patients should be under fire as well.  When you are ill is not the time to burden the systems of your body and hamper its own efforts to heal.  If this seems painfully obvious to you, welcome to the club.  And yet, we accept the situation as it is.

Then there are the schools, the people who are tending and educating the next generation, bless them.  They are running on garbage in most districts in the US.  I worked in this environment, too.  Let me tell you, when there are a thousand people in a building, it’s always someone’s birthday, so there is always junk.  (“Yay!  You made it another year!  Let’s see if we can fix that.”) The cafeterias are unwrapping stations in most schools, there are still traditional vending machines and the kids in areas like ours are getting pre-made pancakes on Styrofoam, topped with hydrogenated soy and high fructose corn syrup for breakfast.  There, ladies and gents, is a recipe for health and behavioral problems if I have ever hear one.  (More on this HERE)

And for the love of sanity, when are we going to stop sending our kids out to pimp poison for fundraisers?  When?  No, I will not buy your hydrogenated butter braid or your slave farmed chocolate bar that tastes like it sat in a gas station for 6 years.  I’ll happily give you five bucks, the equivalent of selling 20 of those awful things.  Or you can just sweep my porch while you are here and earn it that way.  

Dietitians don’t have it easy these days.  The information they are handed is often shaped by those with immediate monetary interests, making knowing what to do seem like playing to trends more than nourishing people.  What’s more, our ideas about food are so warped and our tastes so conditioned to garbage that even if they implement a whole food program and ditch the garbage through some feat of wisdom and budgetary alignment, people will complain for a while.  

I hear a lot of “we can’t” from folks in these institutions regarding food.  Those are the last words I want to hear from people we are trusting to educate the next generation and cure disease.  It is too hard to provide actual food in hospitals and schools?  Can you imagine what that attitude would garner if applied to other facets of what they do?  “We can’t find a cure,” or “We can’t help these kids,” wouldn’t sound very good on a grant or Sunday morning PR commercial.

So where do we go?  What do we do?  I don’t have the answers but we need a conversation about this problem and we don’t need to leave it to the think tanks, although they are important contributors.  We need to be having this conversation in our staff rooms, our conference rooms, at our desks and with our administrators.  We, the everyday folks who buy and eat and have other stuff to do, need to make this a priority and that starts with what we put in our mouths.  It is harder in some environments than others.  It’s harder in some areas.  But if we do not figure out how to break our addictions, feed the good bacteria we want taking care of our bodies and take care of ourselves then we are relying on the institutions to change before we do and that is passive.  We have to figure out how to normalize real food in our own lives while we fight for it in our hospitals and schools.  If that means silently staying away from the birthday cupcakes and swearing to never eat food from a vending machine, so be it.  If it means carrying vegetables with you, do it.  You have accomplished a lot in this life.  You can feed yourself despite what the institution is dishing.  

If we work in a facility that makes an effort toward quality food, encourage it to continue by choosing the real food, every time.


Love from the farm

Happy eating, Katy

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