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Health workers slam newly privatized Alberta hospital cafeterias over empty shelves, quality

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Some health-care workers say the privatization of hospital cafeterias in Calgary and Edmonton has led to empty shelves, higher prices and a dramatic degradation in the quality of the food available to patients, staff and visitors.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) contracted vendors to run the food retail service at hospitals in both cities last year and the outsourcing of those operations has taken place over the last few months.

“Everything seems to be fatty, carb-y, and just congealed,” said Dr. Stephanie Cooper, an obstetrician who works at Foothills Medical Centre.

AHS is acknowledging that it has received complaints and says it is working to address concerns, while one of the contracted vendors says it has faced challenges during the transition but is making improvements.

According to Cooper, the food at the Foothills hospital is no longer tasty, affordable or healthy.

Dr.  Stephanie Cooper is smiling and looking directly at the camera.
Dr. Stephanie Cooper, an obstetrician at Foothills Hospital, says food prices have gone up since the cafeterias were privatized and she’s worried this will be a barrier for patients and visitors. (Submitted by Dr. Stephanie Cooper)

“It really is empty shelves. Normally if you go up to a hot station and there [would be] three entrees and vegetables. Now there’s one plate of food. You can’t even get soup half the time,” she said.

“There used to be shelves with yogurt and cottage cheese and fresh vegetables and fruit … And they’re all gone.”

Much of what is available, according to Cooper, is unhealthy.

And prices have gone up, she said, which leaves her worried about patients and visitors.

“I think it very much has been a potential barrier for people who are coming into the hospital for tests or visiting their loved ones in hospital,” she said.

The food ‘sucks’

The executive director of Friends of Medicare said this is another example of the impacts privatization is having on Alberta’s health system.

“Since the transitions have occurred, we’ve heard from both patients and hospital staff pretty regularly that, to put it bluntly, the food sucks,” said executive director Chris Gallaway, adding to the concerns coming from many hospitals.

“We’ve privatized these for-profit vendors and now the food quality’s gone down and the price has gone up. We don’t think that’s acceptable. We should be providing good food in our hospitals.”

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said it is also receiving complaints from its members, primarily those working at the Foothills Medical Center and the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.

A cafeteria cooler at Foothills Hospital is entirely empty
Staff at Foothills Hospital said since their cafeterias were outsourced earlier this year, shelves are often empty and prices have increased. (Stephanie Cooper)

“They’re spending more money than they have before on food that is really substandard. It’s not an ideal situation,” said Darren Graham, a vice-president with AUPE.

According to Graham, there are about 15,000 staff at Foothills hospital and very few other food options nearby.

It’s a difficult pill to swallow, he said, at a time when staff are burned out and working long hours.

“When you’re suddenly working a double shift because we’re short-staffed, then some of those options go away. You might not have a lunch. You have to go buy something,” he said.

AHS responds

In an August news release, AHS stated that all decisions related to the outsourcing had been made with “quality in mind” and that the cafeterias would “continue to offer variety and healthy food options to AHS staff, visitors, volunteers, physicians and patients. “

But the health authority confirmed this week that it too is hearing concerns about the newly privatized food outlets at both the Foothills Medical Center and the University of Alberta Hospital.

Chris Gallaway has a beard and is wearing a red checkered shirt.  He's looking directly into the camera.
Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare, said he’s been hearing concerns about the food at both Foothills Medical Center and the University of Alberta Hospital since their cafeterias were outsourced. (CBC)

“We certainly acknowledge that the current menu is not what our patients, staff and visitors have come to expect, and we are taking that feedback seriously,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement.

“AHS is actively working with the new vendors and have been assured that both the service and the menu will improve.”

According to Williamson, contracts were awarded to two vendors to take over food service at 10 facilities in Calgary and Edmonton.

In a statement, Sodexo — the company in charge of food outlets at the Foothills and University of Alberta hospitals — said it is in the first 90 days of operations at the hospitals and it is still adjusting.

“Opening a new facility is challenging. Keeping the discussion open with clients is very important to help us align our offer on their expectations,” spokesperson Stephanie Aubin said in an email, adding the company is encouraging feedback through email, meetings and satisfaction surveys.

Aubin said the company is complying with the AHS healthy eating guidelines and is making changes to equipment and spaces to improve its service.

“Not only do we make sure to offer healthy food, we believe in fair pricing. We have a rigorous internal process that allows us to follow market’s benchmarks and set prices accordingly.”

According to AHS the outsourcing is expected to save about $3 million per year.

For his part, Gallaway with Friends of Medicare said he’d like to see proof of this claim.

“We’re calling on all governments to stop with these privatization schemes and actually focus on improving the quality of care, the quality of food and the quality of services we’re providing to Albertans,” he said.

“We’re already struggling to retain the workers we have. We should be ensuring they have what they need to do their jobs.”