Institutional Food

Reader Contribution by Sue Van Slooten
article image

My husband recently had a hospital stay for a fractured skull after a bad fall. It was an ordeal, but he is expected to make a 100% recovery, fortunately. During his two-night stay, we had plenty of time to observe the hospital goings-on. We started at our local hospital, and everyone there was wonderful, including, of course, the ambulance crew. However, he was soon shipped off to a bigger city hospital whose main characteristic was chaos.

On Hospital Food

After several tests and innumerable blood taking (I wouldn’t be surprised he was anemic at some point), the problems were spotted. The only positive thing with a head injury is you don’t have much appetite, and in this case, the hospital food did not disappoint in its terrible reputation. As is usual, you pick off the tray what you hope is edible, and leave the rest. One morning, the only edible thing was oatmeal, the next was toast. I did not ask about dinner. My son and I took to smuggling fresh fruit in, like bananas and apples.

In cruising the halls, I noticed all the food trays stacked up, waiting to go back to be washed. One could not help but notice how much was not eaten. The portions were not large, but most of it was not touched. Now, it is a given that when you do not feel well, you usually also do not feel like eating, so maybe they do not bother trying for that reason. Having said that, when you do not feel well, that is all the more reason for palatable, decent food. It is possible!

That same day, by sheer luck, I had been in another city hospital earlier in the day. Different city, different hospital. We ate lunch in the cafeteria, and I was pleasantly surprised to find fresh items, salads, decently cooked entrees and sandwiches. I had a Western sandwich and sweet potato fries that were quite good. My son had a Caesar salad, milk and a sandwich; my husband, the pizza. They said it all was good, and the Caesar salad made me hungry just looking at it (next time, I will be smart and get one).

Institutional Food

Institutional food has always had a bad rap, and deservedly so. I would have to include school lunches and airlines in this, although we pay dearly for them, either through taxes or fares. In one case, the transatlantic 747 we were on to England ended up with major food poisoning, with the majority of bathrooms no longer functioning due to the fact so many people threw up (only one was left, with a line of fifty to sixty people for it). The beef was literally rancid, and I picked up on it immediately, warning the others in our party not to touch it. We then dove into our backpacks for snacks. One could only hope the one pilot that got stuck with beef didn’t eat it! (Having said all this, I have had decent meals on some airlines, and I was only in First Class once, so it too can be done.)

The school lunches are improving, from what I hear, but when I was a young kid, they were disgusting. My mother could not understand why I refused to eat them after a while, and started brown-bagging lunch. The price was right, certainly cheap enough, and that perhaps is the problem. Somehow, it became acceptable in our society to feed children, the ill, and airline passengers poor to really bad food. Or none at all.

Improving Institutional Food

Today we obviously still live in a society that condones cheap/bad food for those who can’t afford it or have no say. Sadly, many times healthy food is only for those who can afford it or have access to it. Things are improving, but unfortunately, the old rules seem to still apply. Some hospitals have tried mightily to improve their menus, but obviously, some others have room for improvement.

One area of great improvement is university/college level meals, in fact, one could easily argue that a revolution took place on campuses across the country, certainly in Ontario [1]. In some cases, the student meals have been taken over by students themselves, other times restaurateurs have been brought in to do it right. Again, you pay dearly for your education, but your health and welfare used to be a distant second in favor of your mind. Granted, they saw education of your mind as their job, generally, and how well they fed you, well….let’s just say I know personally of several cases of food poisoning on campus in years past. It might be useful for hospitals et al, to take a cue from what the colleges and universities have done.  

As for the airlines, well, caveat emptor.

  1. Knezevic, Irena. TVOntario episode of “The Agenda.” March 2, 2015.

You can follow the adventures of Sue at, or email Sue at

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.