Why Do Hospital Canteens Seem Like Fast Food Outlets?

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Monday, April 22, 2013 - 8:23am

When you're absorbed in your day-to-day work at a hospital - whether that means caring for patients, managing wards, or purchasing cheap scrubs - it can be easy to overlook issues that don't directly affect you. And while no hospital is perfect, an issue that has been the subject of a lot of debate and controversy in recent years is hospital food.

Sadly, many hospitals in the US offer little choice to their staff, patients, and visitors when it comes to mealtimes. Fast food franchises such as McDonalds are commonplace, and even when hospital hallways aren't blighted with the dreaded 'M', the food served in hospital canteens often fares little better.

Canteen grub often features such delicacies as hot dogs, burgers, and cheese-topped nachos, meaning there's little wonder why the US population suffers such staggering rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease - in effect, unhealthy hospital food is legitimizing junk food. When the very place that is supposed to make us well openly allows us to consume these products, we are tricked (whether consciously or not) into thinking they can't be that bad.

So why do hospitals insist on letting their patients consume fatty, salty, and nutritionally deficient foods?

They're Just ‘Giving Us What We Want’

In many cases, hospital CEOs believe that their patients, staff, and visitors want this food. This may be true of some people, but increasing numbers of US citizens are wise to the pitfalls of an unhealthy diet. And those who aren't? Should we be allowing them the choice to eat this way? Is a hospital not the one place in which we should remove the choice to eat junk food?

It's Cheap to Produce

Junk food is cheap for customers to buy. There's also far more money to be made in the mark up of a cheap burger, chips, and coke (particularly the coke), than in a healthy meal of fish, fresh vegetables, and juice.

There is No Structure in Place for Change

Someone needs to be in control who knows not only about nutrition, but how to produce fresh, healthy food on a mass scale, it is almost impossible for hospitals to change their ways. 

Change Costs Money

As well as financing the logistics involved in reforming food production, a new healthy approach to hospital food may well entail refitting the kitchen, and employing more skilled (and therefore expensive) kitchen staff. If a hospital is struggling for money, chances are that food is not top of their priorities. 

Thankfully, things are improving:

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken steps to ban unhealthy foods from public and private hospitals.

As of 2012, there were nine fewer McDonalds outlets located in hospitals than in 2005.

Some hospital facilities are even growing food on site, and operating on a not-for-profit basis.

Yet there is a long way to go. If you want to improve the food served in your hospital canteen there are steps you can take; write letters, start a petition, or even speak to the local press. It's important that hospital employees and local communities take action if they want to push their healthcare facilities into making these vital changes. 

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