Letters for the week of March 14-21, 2007 

Readers comment on hospital food, and recent theater and book reviews.

"Really Slow Food," Feature, 2/21

Nurse, there's xanthan gum in my soup!
On behalf of everyone who might get hit by a bus some day, THANK YOU, Alison Negrin! Recently I visited a neighbor at one of our local hospitals, and I was horrified at the swill she was served for supper. White bread, pressed-turkey-flavored foodlike substance, hydrogenated mayonnaise, apple-flavored sugar water, and red wiggly dessert add up to gutpaste, not nutrition.

How are ailing people supposed to heal when they're served slop that self-respecting bacteria wouldn't even touch? Why haven't the doctors managing patient care and the insurance companies paying for most of it demanded, long before now, that hospitals serve health-building meals? Why has Ms. Negrin come up against so many brick walls when everybody's grandma knows the power of a hearty bowl of soup?

And my grandma never put xanthan gum in her soup! Did yours? What the heck is "Culinary Cream," why is it low-potassium when most Americans are potassium-deficient, and since when are so many Americans lactose-intolerant in the first place? (Is it the lactose, or the bovine growth hormones? Try this, folks: A cup of plain, non-BGH, full-fat or low-fat yogurt every day with your fresh fruit of choice. Don't get the prefruited stuff; it's loaded with sugar, which interferes with calcium absorption. Don't get nonfat; your body needs some fat to help it process calcium which, let's face it, is a ROCK. Don't spend your money on gelatin fillers or other ingredients you can't pronounce — real yogurt thickens up without all that junk. And no, I'm not a doctor, but if I ran the hospitals they sure as hell wouldn't be microwaving chemi-lasagna to inflict upon people whose health is already in jeopardy.)

With all the beautiful, organic produce, meat, dairy products, and whole-grain baked goods available around here, it defies logic that our local hospitals are maintaining contracts with US Foodservice or any other megacorporation whose professional standards (and personal career choices, Mr. Leonardelli) rise no higher than dumping overprocessed, make-believe "food" on the public, let alone viewing the hospitalized public as their captive goldmine. Those contracts have to expire sooner or later, so please, you Kaiser folks and Summit folks and everybody else in a position to make life-or-death nutritional decisions for hospital patients, would you cut ties with those scummy scum vendors at the first possible opportunity? Depending on the bus, I might not have strength enough to lead a hunger strike, but anyone who expects me to choke down Wonder Bread and Jell-O for more than a day had better install an extra-large puke bucket in the ICU.

Again, thank you, Ms. Negrin, for protecting the sick and believing that one person truly can change the world. You are much needed and much appreciated, soup IS better with fresh veggies and real cream, you're not alone in your concerns, and yes, it's shocking that in the "richest nation on earth," providing wholesome food to ailing people should be such an uphill battle.
Nancy McLaughlin, Oakland

Do the right thing
Thank you for highlighting the important work Alison Negrin and her counterparts at John Muir Health are engaged in to source more sustainably produced foods. Yes, there are many challenges to this progressive work. However, more and more champions in the healthcare sector are recognizing that, due to their health-driven mission and their purchasing power, hospitals can be leaders in promoting and supporting healthier food production, packaging, and distribution practices that constitute a sustainable food system. Hospitals around the nation are doing just that with a whole host of programs, such as sourcing locally grown and certified foods, eliminating meat grown with the use of nontherapeutic antibiotics, hosting farmers' markets, and switching to fair-trade coffees and teas.

This is only the beginning. Momentum is building in many sectors to transform our food system into one that is economically viable, socially just, and environmentally responsible. Hospital by hospital, school by school, consumer by consumer, the market is shifting and will continue to do so. We urge more hospitals to get on board by signing the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge (HealthyFoodinHealthcare.org). And we urge food distribution companies to take responsibility for making sustainably produced, locally grown foods more accessible to their institutional clients. It's the right thing to do for the health of patients, workers, the planet, and future generations.
Lucia Sayre, San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, Berkeley

Would you eat that?
My mother was in a convalescent hospital for two years and would hardly eat anything they served her. She would point to the plate of food on the tray and ask me, Would you eat that? I got so frustrated trying to get her to eat that I couldn't stand it. I eventually wrote to Alice Waters suggesting that she write a cookbook for hospitals and nursing homes. One of her staff wrote me back to say that Alice was busy with other things, but informed me that Kaiser had a farmers' market — which was a step in the right direction at least.

Imagine my delight, then, to find others working on this issue. As I put it in my letter to Alice Waters, many residents (the convalescent hospital where my mother was staying always called them "residents") had little to look forward to, considering their failing health and limited mobility, so better food — tasty, good-looking food — would probably be the highlight of their day.

Please extend my thanks to Alison for tackling this important subject, and extend my wishes that she succeed in her endeavors. My own idea of what to do — make a cookbook that explained the importance of fresh produce and whole grains, and especially the appearance of the food being served — may be fundamentally sound, but from reading your article I see that it will take a lot more if we are to succeed in getting our parents and elders food they will actually want to eat.
Dennis Fritzinger, Berkeley

"Wish You Weren't Here," Burning Books, 2/28

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