Opinion: Putting patient food in the hands of corporations reveals the trouble with normal

Murray Dobbin
By Murray Dobbin
October 17th, 2016

It’s amazing what we gradually accept as normal — even admirable — in how we treat each other in Canada. Practices that were once seen as a repugnant surrender to government indifference, like food banks, are now virtually celebrated as a high point of citizen engagement and promoted as such by our public broadcaster once a year. And other practices, like hospitals and seniors’ care homes that once had their own kitchens and cooking staff, are seemingly a thing of the past, a “luxury” that we have no hope of ever getting back.

As Bruce Cockburn’s song suggests, the trouble with normal, is it always gets worse.

The latter example demands of us that we somehow accept the notion that the food we eat is unrelated to our health or our healing. And I don’t mean just the calculation of the technical nutritional value of the meals — but their taste, their presentation, the choice amongst menu items; in other words, the sense that you have some power to choose what you eat. Before you guffaw, remember this was the old normal, and still is in a few hospitals and care homes across the country.

But the “rethermalized” slop that passes for food prepared by giant multinationals like the French multinational Sodexo ($6 billion in yearly revenue, 10,000 Canadian employees) should be against the law. I experienced this unfood some years back when I was hospitalized in Powell River. I should point out that in every other aspect the care was exemplary but my partner diligently brought me real food at mealtimes. I decided, however, that I would try the hospital soup. Less than a minute after the first spoonful I vomited it up.

I was reminded of my disgusting experience when I read a front-page story in our local paper, the Powell River Peak, headlined “Powell River seniors take stand on meals.” It was a grim account of what the elderly put up with in two seniors’ residences operating under the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) with food services also provided by Sodexo. Of course the appalling quality of the food was not really news. According to Elaine Steiger, secretary of the residents’ council at the Evergreen home: “For the last couple of years, most of our meetings have been taken up with the topic of food. Usually it’s the quality, but lately it’s been shortages.”

Steiger told the Peak that for the past few months there had been many instances of actual shortages, bad enough that she felt the food shortages “[b]order on elder abuse. … One day six residents went without a dinner and were given Boost…”

According to the Peak, the situation at the Willingdon Creek seniors’ facility was scarcely better.

Complaints about “food shortages, meals of poor quality, meals not served on time and small portion sizes” are commonplace: “Joy and Richard Hibberd … said the food is barely edible at times and not enough fresh food is served. ‘We haven’t been getting fresh fruit. We see a third of a banana maybe once in three weeks.'” Fruit juice is actually watered down flavour crystals.

And how did the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority respond to this gross corporate irresponsibility? Gavin Wilson, the VCHA’s public affairs director, acknowledged the Boost incident. But it turns out he knew about food shortages last June when complaints first arose: “In the following weeks we expressed our concerns [to Sodexo] based on feedback we were receiving that there were shortages of first-choice menu items.” That’s it? He expressed “concerns”? And he blithely accepted Sedexo’s “assurances” it was taking steps to improve food quality and quantity. He did not say what residents probably wanted to hear: “This is totally unacceptable and if it happens again we will cancel Sodexo’s contract!”

But Sodexo took care of such severe public criticism when it signed the contract back in 2004. According to Colleen Kimmett in a three-part Tyeeseries written in 2012, the contract “[s]tipulates that VCHA and Sodexo would coordinate their messaging around patient food services and agree on ‘standardized and uniform responses to questions from the media…'” So Mr. Wilson and the VCHA become contracted PR flaks for a giant French multinational.

But the VCHA’s protection of Sodexo goes beyond mealy-mouthed responses to the corporation’s outrageous behaviour. It is virtually impossible to find out what is in the food they prepare, where it comes from or to compare it — and its actual cost — to real food that is a prepared on site in other facilities. According to Kimmett’s investigative piece: “Both parties cited contractual confidentiality for what they couldn’t share about what’s being provided to the sick, injured and elderly in Vancouver’s hospitals.” It’s proprietary information, (Sodexo’s verbal claim that 21.6 per cent of the food came from B.C. suppliers is unverifiable.)

Wilson indicated that its contract with Sodexo did not even require that the company provide purchasing information. In other words, the VCHA, appointed by the provincial Liberal government, voluntarily ties its own hands when it comes to enforcing any real accountability by its corporate partner. This kind of secrecy is hardly new but its voluntary enforcement by a government board in an area as critical as health care is particularly offensive. A body appointed to ensure the best possible health outcomes of citizens chooses loyalty to a foreign corporation over caring for citizens.

How is it possible that we have arrived at this appalling situation? Of course the simple answer is that right-wing governments take care of their friends through privatization. But the rationale is found in the ideology of neoliberalism — in this case, in the words of political scientist Janice Gross Stein, the culprit is the “cult of efficiency.” The role of ideology is to give meaning to power — in other words to provide a persuasive rationale for doing something that is prima facie just profoundly wrong.

Stein writes in her book of the same name: “In our avowedly secular age, the paramount sin is now inefficiency. Dishonesty, unfairness, and injustice — the sins of times past — pale in comparison with the cardinal transgression of inefficiency.” She goes on to argue that “Efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, has become an end itself…” It is a “value” lifted from the private sector’s profit imperative and applied to the provision of virtually all public services, precisely where it should play a secondary role.

There are signs that this pernicious neoliberal edifice — tax cuts for the rich, privatization, cuts to services, deregulation, “free trade,” and austerity — is being challenged worldwide and even by its traditional defenders. But it won’t die on its own. What better iconic struggle to kill it off than demanding real food for seniors and hospital patients.

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