A “throw away culture” in long-term care food-service.

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I spent a good part of my summer researching food waste at several long-term care facilities.  While the operations I visited provided exceptional care for their residents, they do produce a significant amount of food waste.  It was relatively easy to identify how food waste was generated, a little harder to determine if that food waste could be reduced.

These facilities must serve food to their residents in accordance with the Long-Term Care Homes Act of 2007.  This act was formulated to ensure the care and health of the residents and in this regard, it does a great job. All residents are given two choices of entrées, vegetables, and desserts and receive a full portion in accordance with Canada’s food guide.  These two policies generate food waste in that food-service managers predict which of the two items the residents are going to pick that day.  They can’t ‘run out’ so they put a ‘buffer’ on their par and hence a lot of food that is made is not even served to residents.  Plate waste, the food served to the resident but not eaten is the other major contributor.  Less than half of the residents can eat all the food they are served, and many due to health issues barely eat anything.

While we continue our study of food waste at these facilities we find ourselves dealing with some very meaningful and ‘moral’ questions. For instance, if a resident has not eaten more than a few bites of their lunch for over a year should you continue to put a ‘full portion’ in front of them?  While we are struggling with some of these questions there is something else we have observed at these facilities that is a much easier ‘waste issue’ to address.

Within a few hours of being in these facilities it was apparent that they depended on many plastic, one-use items in their food-service operation.   While they had full kitchen and dining room supplies it was not uncommon to see them serve cold beverages in throw away plastic cups.   Plastic portion cups were used for ketchup and mustard and polystyrene plates were sometimes used.  While we accepted the use of plastic drinking straws as necessary for many of the patients these other uses of one-use items could easily be eliminated using reusable cups, plates and utensils.

When we started asking a few questions we found out that convenience was the issue behind many of the uses of these items, in some cases management had no answer for why they were using them.  It was however one discussion with a Personal Support Worker (PSW) that hit the mark for me.  “Heath care facilities have a throw away culture” is what she told me.  She gave me some examples of pill cups, medical gloves, needles.  We obviously saw this with food waste in the dining rooms as well.

Now in the case of gloves and needles we get it, but it was this woman’s opinion that this ‘germ free’ culture leads to the acceptance of throwing things away after one use, even when not necessary.  My observation over the course of the summer is that this PSW was correct and there was an acceptance of using one-use throw away items even in cases when there were obvious alternatives.

While we continue to try and crack ‘the code of food waste’ in long-term care we will look deeper into this overuse of plastic one-use items in the food-service operations of these facilities.   We take no issue with the throwing away of items to ensure health and safety but there is no reason why minimizing their use should not become an area of focus for food-service management in these facilities.   Perhaps if we accept that the creation and disposal of plastic is a human health issue we’ll do better.

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