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Much-maligned hospital food to get revamp from VIHA

Nov 06 2012

The Vancouver Island Health Authority is implementing a new computer system, called CBORD, aimed at making hospital nutrition faster and safer.

It is also working on a common menu for the central and north Island, and is piecing together a database of ingredients used by Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and other hospitals in the region.

VIHA director of food services Lynn Nabata said the new system will mark a huge advance for hospital food delivery and allow staff to immediately identify foods that could pose a serious health risk to patients — for example, a curry paste that could affect someone with peanut allergies — across the board.

"The people we serve are more vulnerable than the general public," said Nabata.

At NRGH, where an older computer system is already in place, the more advanced CBORD will be yet another cog in a system that employs roughly 100 food preparation and delivery staff and churns out 1,450 square meals a day to hospital patients and residents at Dufferin Place residential care facility — all from scratch, and not including smaller snack portions required by some patients.

A general contract manager, Complete Purchasing Services Inc., handles multiple food contracts on behalf of the health authority for the central and north Island, including with larger suppliers like Gordon Food Service, Islands West Produce and B&C Foods out of Victoria. Denise Russell, nutrition manager at NRGH, estimates that about 23 per cent of the ingredients the hospital uses comes from B.C., while 65 per cent are brought in from other areas of the country. VIHA buys from local producers whenever possible, said Nabata, but she added that there are benefits to buying through contract — such as price stability and a steady stream of goods for cooks to process.

The current arrangement allows the hospital to operate at a cost per patient meal day of $25.75 — including the cost of food, labour and equipment.

Russell concurs.

"It's not feasible to go to Martha's garden on Thursday to pick up the vegetables," she said.

The kitchen uses a 'cook freeze' production method that sees cooks prepare meals with a major emphasis on food safety and nutrition, said Russell. The food is prepared fresh, and certain dishes like stews are frozen and served throughout the week. Other foods, like roasts, are made ready to serve.

This approach helps ensure there is a steady supply of food available for meal services throughout the day, and also cuts down the need to have cooking staff booked outside the regular 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. work times. But it's still a hectic pace inside the kitchen, said Scott Lamberton, a production cook who has been on staff for 25 years. He and his team sometimes huddle at the end of the day to hash out what the kitchen needs to produce during the upcoming week.

"It's a pretty up-tempo job," he said, stirring a 1,500-portion batch of stew. "If you have an office job, you're not going to come in here and figure it out." Lamberton said he thinks the notion that hospital food is bad or unpleasant is "a bit of a misnomer."

"If you've had stomach surgery, of course you aren't going to enjoy the food," he said.

"Our food gets plenty of compliments."

Vancouver Coastal Health Authority spokeswoman Anna Marie D'Angelo said the VCH — which oversees the delivery of more than five million hospital meals a year — moved its last unit over from a pre-prepared meal system to an in-house prepared system last year. She added food delivery methods in hospitals are always changing and looking for ways to improve.

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