Seniors meals little more than ‘mush and sawdust meat’

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says patients and seniors at more than 70 small hospitals and long-term care facilities across the province deserve more than meals of “mush and sawdust meat.”

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says patients and seniors at more than 70 small hospitals and long-term care facilities across the province deserve more than meals of “mush and sawdust meat.”

The union’s 14-minute documentary released this week — Tough To Swallow: Meals That Sparked A Seniors Revolt — denounces the pre-cooked meals Alberta Health Services introduced in November 2009.

The AUPE says the packaged meals, that can last up to 70 days, are distributed to Consort Health Centre, Coronation Health Centre, Bashaw Care Centre, Sundre Hospital and Care Centre, and Stettler Hospital and Care Centre in Central Alberta.

“These people, they contributed to our society for years. They built these towns. They paid taxes. Some of them fought in the war. And at the end of the day, this is what we do to them,” said Glen Scott, AUPE vice-president.

Alberta Health Services has been phasing out full-service kitchens in facilities with fewer than 125 beds and implemented a standardized 21-day menu to reduce costs.

“Food is a pleasure and it’s taken one of the few pleasures they have left in life away from them for the misconception of saving money,” Scott said.

AUPE says food services budgets for 19 facilities using the new system showed on average that costs had increased six per cent.

“It’s trucked in every day. They heat it up and give it to us. That’s all,” said Stettler care centre resident Jim Ellwood on Wednesday.

“It has no taste and no smell to it. You just get turned off when you go to eat it,” said Ellwood, 75, who appeared in the documentary.

He said many people at his care centre have Alzheimer’s or dementia so they don’t complain.

Ellwood grew up in Big Valley and has friends who have retired in Stettler. He doesn’t want to leave and there’s nowhere else in Stettler he can go.

“If I live 85 years, I have 10 more years of looking at this stuff,” said Ellwood who is confined to a wheelchair.

Scott said there’s a long-term bed shortage in Alberta. Seniors don’t have an option.

Overcooked and filled with preservatives, the food is robbed of nutrients that can impact people’s health by translating into things like longer hospital stays or wounds that don’t heal as quickly, he said.

Money is also being wasted because some people won’t finish these manufactured meals that resemble bad TV dinners from the 70s, he said.

The documentary, shot a few months ago, includes seniors and their family, AUPE members, and food critic John Gilchrist.

A year after the new food program was introduced, then health minister Gene Zwozdesky promised to improve food in rural health facilities.

Scott said AUPE members have lost jobs because of cuts to kitchen staff when AHS went to the new food system, but the video is about doing the right thing when it comes to seniors care.

Heather Truber, AHS director for food safety, menu and supply for the province, said AHS prepares all sandwiches and salads, and many of the desserts on site.

“A lot of our main entrees, such as soup and casseroles, do come in and need to be finished off by our staff. They all come in bulk format. They’re not individual trays. They don’t come in all prepared individually waiting to be heated up,” Truber said.

She said foil food trays seen in the video is not how food is served by AHS.

“Those are actually Meals on Wheels trays and none of our patients that live in our facilities receive those at all.”

And AHS is always looking for ways to make food better and responds to concerns of residents, Truber said.

Wildrose seniors critic Kerry Towle is challenging the province to put an end to pre-cooked meals.

“We don’t do that with our children. We don’t do that in our own homes. But all of a sudden we expect seniors to just accept that. I think that’s absolutely ridiculous,” said the MLA for Innisfail/Sylvan Lake.

Food may not necessarily be served in tinfoil packaging at the table, but it’s still a pre-cooked, prepackaged meal, she said.

Brenda Corney, chairperson of the Red Deer Chapter of Friends of Medicare, said centralization isn’t always the best way.

“The idea is if you centralize everything, and keep all your expenses in one place, they will be less,” Corney said.

Once something has been established in the health care system it’s very hard to affect any change, she said.

“They’ll tweak something and say they’ve looked into it,” Corney said.

Central Alberta Council on Aging hasn’t been looking into the issue of food quality.

“We haven’t heard serious complaints in Red Deer,” said president Viggo Nielsen.

The documentary can be seen at