Will hospital food ever get better?

New York–area chefs are working on the problem. More need to follow their lead.

Photo: rawpixel/pixabay
  • 23 New York–area hospitals are attempting to redefine hospital food by making it healthier and more exciting to prepare.
  • 20% of 208 hospital facilities surveyed featured McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy's on their campuses.
  • A 2017 report published in JAMA found that almost half of deaths caused heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke can be attributed to poor diet.

Boston's Children Hospital is one of the most well-regarded children's medical facilities in the world. It was fortunate that my ex-wife's teenage nephew lived in Boston. When he suffered a brain injury that nearly killed him eight years ago, the top-notch staff saved his life. People from around the world to bring their children to this facility thanks to its combination of expertise and equipment.

Yet what I remember most about the trip to visit him was the food. Here we were, in one of the best hospitals on the planet, and the cafeteria looked like a 7-11. Our options included muffins, cookies, potato chips, soda, and not much else. I was stunned that a place of healing would only offer visitors the products that bring many patients into its wings in the first place.

I shouldn't have been that surprised. I worked in the emergency room at another top institution, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, for two years while attending Rutgers. In fact, I lived in that same hospital for over a month after breaking my femur in 1986. I recall eating in the hospital as both an employee and patient. In both situations, what was provided was anything but healthy.

I'm not alone in this confusion. A recent Eater expose highlights the problem:

A Styrofoam cup of watery broth, orange Jell-O, blue Gatorade, low-fat vanilla yogurt, a juice box of wild berry-flavored Boost Breeze, a packet of Scandishake powder, and generic saltines, neatly lined up on a dull gray hospital tray: This was among my husband's first meals in over two months.

I remember the Jell-O, saltines, and juice well—I drank multiple plastic containers of grape juice every day for five weeks, not exactly the best option for an overweight eleven-year-old. America might be unique in this disregard for health, at least given this global survey of user-generated photos of hospital food from around the world. (Ok, Poland isn't looking so hot either.)

In America, obesity costs $147 billion per year, driving up our annual health care costs by 29%. A 2017 report published in JAMA found that almost half of deaths caused by heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke can be attributed to poor diet. Why, then, are the places that address these diseases part of the problem? How do administrators get this very solvable issue so wrong?

As the NY Times reports,

Only 27 percent of American medical schools teach the recommended 25 hours of nutrition, and even then the content is mostly biochemistry rather than "practical" advice about diet.

This explains why doctors are often ignorant of nutrition, but does this problem persist in every facet of hospital bureaucracy? Not every doctor is clueless about this issue: In 2016, a nonprofit group of over 12,000 medical professionals filed a report about hospital food, stating that 20% of the 208 facilities surveyed featured McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy's on their campuses. If visitors are getting shafted, just consider the patients:

The food served in regular hospital cafeterias often isn't much better; in the same 2015 report, PCRM [the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine] analyzed cafeteria menus and patient meal plans, and found that they often included processed meats and items high in sugar, salt, and cholesterol. Another study from 2012, published in the journal Academic Pediatrics, assessed the food offerings in 14 California children's hospitals, rating each hospital on a scale from 0 (unhealthy) to 37 (healthy). The average score was 19, and only 7 percent of the 384 entrees served were classified as healthy.

Fortunately, things are changing. A pilot program at a children's hospital in Ottawa includes red Thai curry, basil pesto with kale, and cod on the menu; the vegetables that chef Simon Wiseman cooks with are pulled from his garden. And, as the NY Times article above mentions, a move toward healthier food is happening at 23 New York–area hospitals.

Beyond serving healthier food to patients, there is an educational component to avoid patient re-admittance. Doctors are being trained to teach those under their care how to read food labels and understand what a carbohydrate is. They've even created a "food pharmacy" for discharged patients to return home with better nutritional options and are offering low-income patients the opportunity to return for free meals on a weekly basis.

Hospitals are stressful places, and humans are emotional animals. A few weeks ago, I sliced off my fingertip while cutting an onion. My wife, taking a nap, was startled when I ran into the bedroom, my left hand wrapped in a bloody towel. Two hours later, having received a tetanus shot after the cauterization of finger, it was obvious that the healthy dinner previously in preparation was not happening. We settled on burritos—true comfort food in Los Angeles—on the ride home.

We need our medical establishments to do better. Health care spending accounts for nearly 18% of America's GDP. That unacceptable figure is produced by an industry that keeps us returning by fostering bad dietary habits. At a moment when citizens really need medical professionals to educate them, they're failing miserably by feeding them the same crap that likely put them in the hospital in the first place. It's slowly changing, as one doctor in the NY Times piece noted, but the change is not coming soon enough.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.


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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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