Overcooked meats that are hard to chew. Processed, stale bread. Bland recipes supplemented with low-quality condiments. These are common complaints about food in Ontario’s long-term care homes.
Although government underfunding contributes to quality concerns, many long-term care homes contract out food services to companies that prioritize profits over residents’ needs. Contractors tend to prepare limited options that are often packaged offsite, robbing residents the enticement of fresh food and input into the menu.
Contracting out is quite prevalent in for-profit homes but also a problem in not-for-profit and municipal homes.
But there are homes in Ontario that have chosen a different path. In the four homes managed by the Regional Municipality of Peel, food is prepared on-site with quality ingredients, served fresh, and importantly, caters to residents’ preferences.
“The food in my long-term care home is really good,” says Pam Hayer, a personal support worker and a member of CUPE 966. “There are lots of Indian residents who can get Indian food. And there are two options for everyone. And if they don’t like those options, they can call the kitchen and get something else.”
In contrast to homes that contract out, food in Peel homes is prepared and served by in-house workers familiar with residents’ proclivities and behaviours. As these workers are more in-tune with residents, they are able to anticipate their needs and ensure their satisfaction at meal times.
“We make the food according to the residents’ diet, like if they have a renal diet or a gluten free diet. The food services are well organized. They use the Canada Food Guide recommendations when making menus,” says Rupinder Tutt, a dietary aide whose job includes assessing residents’ nutritional needs.
Tutt says that unlike her experience with a for-profit home where cost-cutting was prioritized, the Region of Peel has invested in adaptive aids for elderly and disabled residents to use when eating, which reduce their reliance on workers for assistance and promote independence.
While workers are generally satisfied with Peel’s management of food services, they note room for improvement as many workers are precarious. Both Hayer and Tutt point out that there are food service workers who have been unable to get full-time jobs despite more than 10 years of service.
“When you are part-time you have less knowledge about your resident because you are not working consistently on one floor, as they assign you a different floor for every shift,” Tutt says. “Plus, you need to have second job to survive if you are part-time. So sometimes you are tired because you have been working hard at the other place and then you come here, and you can’t give your 100%. I have a full-time job and that’s why I can be fully devoted to my work here.”
Lola Silbourne, PSW and CUPE 966 secretary-treasurer, says that the stark difference in the quality of food at Peel homes compared to others shows that long-term care can be so much better with the right approach.
“Peel’s management of food services is very encouraging and in many ways a model for other homes to follow. We commend their efforts to improve residents’ experience and ensure they get the comfort, dignity, and peace they deserve at the end of their lives,” she says. “But as our members point out, Peel can do better. As a union, we will continue to urge the employer to make the right choices for living and working conditions in long-term care.”