Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Couple Of Laws Might Curb Food Waste At Hospitals, Nursing Homes

The holiday season is as good a time as any to bring up a little-noticed scandal: the mind-boggling amount of food that is wasted in hospitals and nursing homes. And it's time to raise an angle on this problem that is generally not discussed -- that nutritionists and their staff members simply don't know or care what to serve to sick, old people.

I'm not going to present readers of this post with a lot of stats -- if you've ever had a relative stay in a nursing home, or spent any time in a hospital, you've seen the many untouched trays, three times a day, day after day. The waste must surely amount to billions of dollars over time. And a little legislation might be an answer.

I will present only one statistic, unattributed. It's estimated that about 10 percent of all waste that comes from hospitals is food. Think of how much this adds to the cost of health care in America -- it must be significant.

And it isn't simply that some sick people can't eat much, or that the food is unappetizing (although it often is). Quite often, what the staff brings to individual patients or residents is totally inappropriate.

One relative of mine who has been in nursing homes and hospitals for years is a colostomy patient. In other words, she shits into a bag, in the front, because inflammatory bowel disease made the surgery necessary. She's also lactose-intolerant.

So, what have we seen them bring her over the years? Plates with such offerings as lasagna (with plenty of acidic tomato sauce, and lots of cheese), lightly steamed broccoli, barbecued chicken on the bone with lots of sauce, crispy tacos and other Tex-Mex fare, all manner of raw salads, beans, milk-based pudding -- you get the idea.

It's all very tasty if done well, and also reasonably nutritious. But there's one big problem: She can't eat any of this stuff. She couldn't eat most of it even before she underwent a colostomy.


We supplement her diet, so thankfully she isn't starving. She would be if she had to depend solely on the tender mercies of these institutional kitchens. And there are many sick old people who do have to depend on them. There are alternative trays, substitutions, between-meal snacks and so forth, but often they aren't an improvement in digestion for the infirm. Salami sandwiches and Fritos don't do the job any better for these folks.

Obviously some of this can be written off to human stupidity. Poorly paid staff members simply don't read the diet cards, or don't care anyway. You run across one occasionally who is almost unspeakably stupid ("I didn't know there was milk in cheese.") But much of it rests with a kind of organizational insanity.

The professionals involved, the dietitians, are trained to deliver nutritious food to the old and the sick; but they're sending out food that's mostly appropriate for people with healthy digestive systems. That doesn't serve most of their clientele.

In other words, the stupidity goes all the way to the top, as usual.

My wife and I, both advocates for sick, elderly parents, have been fighting this battle for years, with few if any results. The scrubs just don't get it, no matter how much you point out such obvious imbecility to them.

Regrettably, it's going to take a couple of laws to improve things here.

(1) Dietary standards for the sick and elderly.

It's time to put an end to a "one size fits all" approach to food for people in hospitals and nursing homes. Blenders and food processors are cheap. They would pay for themselves if the infirm got food they wouldn't have to chew and could actually digest.

And the institutions should be liable for malnourishment of people who have special problems such as diabetes, food allergies or lactose intolerance. A couple of class-action lawsuits would probably make those dietary cards required reading.

(2) Recycling requirements. Some food waste from these institutions is inevitable, but why does it all have to go to the landfill?

In my innocent youth, I assumed that all that food that sick and old people didn't eat eventually ended up in barnyard pens, as hog slop. That would make sense. (Sorry, Jewish, Muslim and vegetarian friends -- some of us carnivorous Gentile infidels still eat those filthy animals.)

I don't remember when it was, but I was told that, no, that food just gets tossed. I recall mention of health regulations that require that it be thrown away. How f*****g stupid can society be?

At the very least, this food could be recycled for compost. And in the case of food that obviously hasn't been in contact with anyone's saliva, why the hell couldn't it be ground up and sold, or even given, to pig farmers to feed to their swine? Sounds sort of like a green solution to me.

Contrary to the conception that libertarians and conservatives have about liberals and progressives, many of us have indeed met a rule or a regulation that we didn't like. They are certainly not desirable for their own sake.

But there are times when law is the only instrument to stop insane behavior. We have a couple of examples of that here.

I hope someone in Washington, or in Austin and other state capitals, cares enough about this scandal to file a couple of bills and try to end it.