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Alberta's Soviet Meal Deal

To know why an oil-rich province forces hospital patients to eat thawed slop, meet the man they call The Cookie Monster.

Andrew Nikiforuk 24 Nov

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Calgary journalist and author, as well as The Tyee's first writer in residence. Read his previous Tyee articles here.

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Another victim of the Superboard.

If you want to know what it's like to live in a petro state, where bust and boom budgets abuse ordinary people, just hear out Marguerite Edwards. She's started a revolution in rural Alberta and God bless her.

The 82-year-old, straight-talking farm girl hails from Oyen, Alberta near the Saskatchewan border. Last March Alberta Health Services positively "irked" her when it introduced a new 21-day standardized meal plan at the Big Country Hospital.

Out went locally cooked food such as roast beef, mashed potatoes and turnips. And in came precooked frozen dinners trucked all the way from a central supplier in Calgary. The new industrial menu included 'pasta and meat sauce' and 'broccoli cheese soufflé.' Just add lots of steam and, well, you get the gooey plastic picture. Many folks couldn't even recognize the crap as food.

The new meal deal for 114 rural hospitals and long-term care facilities is another so-called cost-saving measure by the province's Superboard known as Alberta Health Services. But it's really another sordid metaphor for how things have come undone in a province ruled by one party armed with petro dollars for nearly 40 years.

Let them eat cookies

Two years ago Premier Ed Stelmach dissolved the province's nine regional health authorities and created one big centralized agency to ostensibly save money. Health care, after all, represents 40 per cent of the government's budget. But centralization and concentration of power, the hallmark of petro states coping with volatile oil revenue and even more volatile government spending and cutting, hasn't saved a penny. Now Canada's wealthiest province is running a $5-billion deficit and its health care system is in free fall.

The intellectually-challenged Stelmach put an Aussie, Dr. Steve Duckett, in charge of the Superboard. In Alberta, they call Duckett the Cookie Monster. That's because of a now famous incident when journalists dared to pose a few fair-minded questions to Duckett and he repeatedly rebuffed them by saying: "I'm still eating my cookie." (The exchange is now a YouTube sensation.) Duckett, a professional itinerant economist, now makes approximately $800,000 a year piloting a Titanic-like $15-billion health care system that increasingly has little to do with health and everything with power (the high spending Saudi government hires foreigners to run essential services too.). When not greedily consuming cookies, Duckett peppers his talks with incomprehensible jargon such as "discount outlier days" and "low trim cases."

Ever since Duckett came aboard, the system has screwed people with economic precision. Alberta's emergency rooms have nearly collapsed due to over crowding (one patient committed suicide while waiting for care) while bonuses for Duckett staff have moved ever upward. (Raj Sherman, a Tory MLA and ER doctor was summarily dismissed from Alberta's Tory party this week for noting the system was broken. Petro states can't tolerant dissent let alone lame truths about how badly they spend petro dollars.) And, now courtesy of the Cookie Monster, rural seniors get to eat frozen "rethermalized" slop, instead of home cooked fresh meals. Oh, the paradox of plenty.

The plan to centralize food production for rural hospitals and long term care facilities came without warning like all bad news. "It was all hush, hush," says Edwards, a member of the Oyen and District Seniors Association. But farmers know a bad plate of food when they see one. The entrees or "high quality product options" were barely recognizable; the fruit wasn't fresh and the meat was so rubbery that many elders couldn't slice it up. "It was absolutely ridiculous," charges Edwards.

Meals on Wheels patrons also voted against the "cat food" and went back to tea and biscuits, adds Edwards. "We had good cooks here. This plan upset the whole town." Prisoners eat better than this, fumed the feisty elder. "Seniors deserve better. They are not criminals," she wrote in an angry June letter to the government.

But Edwards didn't get a reply until four months later in September. It seems that officials in a petro state are just too busy eating cookies these days. "And the letter was all words with nothing in it."

Cooks in exile

Meanwhile the apparatchiks at Alberta Health Services replied to the growing revolt against their Stalinist food system with extraordinary bafflegab. Judy-Ann Wybenga, director of food services north for Alberta Health Services, for example, defended the new meal plan as the best way to provide "safe, sustainable food service model in facilities." Wybenga, who holds a "Green Belt in Lean Healthcare" from the Leading Edge Group, also said that 21-day cycle would also "avoid menu boredom."

But the proud citizens of Claresholm never had a problem with menu boredom because their prized health care facilities served home-cooked meals. Last summer the 21-day meal plan summarily put local chefs out of work at the Willow Creek Community Care Centre and caused an uproar. Old folks used to wait with delight for carefully prepared meals. Now they dread the tasteless and odorless rations from the Superboard. Many families bring in food for elderly parents despite a three per cent rate fee hike in long-term care facilities, perhaps to pay for centralized food delivery.

Rita Burton, a former 74-year-old retired Claresholm nurse, sampled the frozen meals and declared them "awful." She read the menu and nearly fainted. Frozen, thawed and steamed liver and onions ("Well, that will be really tasty"). But the "meatless meat balls" had her dumbfounded. "Why are we serving meatless meatballs in rural Alberta, the home of beef?" She's been writing letters ever since. "I'm a cranky old woman."

Glen Alm, a rancher and local councilor with the Municipal District of Willow Creek, also sampled the new food and wasn't impressed. "It's not good enough for someone who is going to be in a long term care for the next ten years of their life. . . These people don't have any advocates. Why is AHS going to the lowest common denominator in service?"

The rebellion grows

From Claresholm the revolt for decent food spread like fire to the town of Vermillion. There agents of the Alberta's fearless Cookie Monster squashed a church group that regularly prepared homed cooked meals for patients on specific days. Their standards were obviously too high and their food too tasty. Even a major Alberta Health Service consultation report tellingly reported the state pogrom against local food on September 16th:

"This community partnership has been cancelled, and instead a 21-day standardized menu has been put in place throughout the system. People spoke out everywhere about this decision. They talked about the loss of local jobs, loss of cultural food choices, inability to buy local fresh food—the loss of quality is a most basic quality of life issue."

In Jasper, seniors at the Alpine Summit Seniors Lodge soon joined the clarion call for a return to quality. Even the fruit comes prepackaged except for the occasional pineapple, lamented the elders. As one resident put it: "It's all about central buying and we're at the end of the line." Moreover the pre-cooked eggs possess a surreal consistency. "I call them rubber balls and you can bounce them on the floor," Don Hayes told the local paper, Fitzhugh.

Another rebellion continues to sweep through northeastern Alberta. In St. Paul, Edith Read, a 67-year-old president of the Alberta Council on Aging for Region 2, attacked the sordid food plan as uneconomic, unfair and just plain stupid.

In a stinging article for the Alberta Council on Aging, Read spelled out the unhealthy character of a centralized food supply. "If there is contamination at the source then everyone in the 114 facilities will become ill. Also the vendor in an effort to make a profit will buy from Mexico and China" or places that do not have regulated food standards. Somehow this sort of common sense escaped the Cookie Monster and his high paid health experts.

Nor does prepackaged and frozen food make any sense economically. "When you consider that almost all the kitchen staff is needed to reheat and prepare this food," says Read, the kitchens are still costing money to operate. In addition "transportation and shipping costs are high, the cost of reheating and freezing is high, and wastage in small facilities as a result of bulk buying is huge." In fact the AHS 21-day menu is a great way to keep landfill sites bursting with plastic containers, tin foil and inedible food.

The Cookie Monster's bureau

Last but not least the centralized food service system at the Superboard boasts five levels of bureaucracy. There is an executive vice president who reports to the Cookie Monster; a vice president; a director for north and south regions; more regional managers and then site coordinators for every three or four communities. "And they're saying they are saving money?!" asks Read incredulously.

The totalitarian nature of the plan also sickened Read. "Residents who have complained have been told that trouble makers will be evicted, so many of them are intimidated and afraid to complain."

Last September Premier Stelmach reluctantly tasted the frozen slop. Even the Ukrainian autocrat had to admit it was "terrible," as Read put it. Shortly afterwards the province ordered an investigation. Alberta Health Services then hired an Oakville, Ontario based Food System Consulting Inc. to do a review because what petro state would want to listen to non-oil producing seniors.

This week the Cookie Monster gang reported that seniors "living in health-oriented facilities told us they want food that is nutritious and reminds them of home." But they won't get it. No local cooking in Alberta. The Soviet meal plan still stands. But now it will be led by an Executive Chef which means more petro dollars for the Superboard. The news release reads about as tiresome and as dishonest as a cocaine deal in Fort McMurray.

Shockingly, the Soviet meal deal openly contradicts the very advice offered by the Superboard in its splashy and opulent magazine called Apple. (Petro states often mistake propaganda as a form of communication.) In the November issue, an article on family health champions home cooked meals as the number one way to stay well. All the frozen stuff is just too high in salt, fat and sugar. "Cooking from scratch is beneficial because it provides a well balanced diet with variety and an appreciation of where food comes from," advised dietician Samara Felesky-Hunt.

But obviously that sort of recipe for common sense shouldn't be served to the rural Albertans who built the province. So an incompetent government that now makes as much income from gambling and alcohol sales as it does bitumen production, has condemned its most defenseless citizens to macaroni and cheese in bags, cans of Campbell soup and meatless fucking meatballs all supervised by an Executive Chef at the Superboard.

Of course there might be some method in the madness. Perhaps the Superboard is on the payroll of laxative companies or coffin makers. Or maybe the Superboard has concluded that the best way to eliminate emergency waiting lines is by simply killing off the weak, old and the infirm with bad frozen food in the first place.

'We've lost local autonomy'

Although Tory politicians have now tasted the industrial slop and read a consultant's report confirming the badness of the situation, nothing has really changed, laments Read. The governments of Kuwait and Qatar aren't fond of accountability either. "It's all part of the concentration approach with the Superboard and that attitude we know what's right for you. We've lost local autonomy," says Read.

Meanwhile long-term care facilities in Kelowna, B.C. have adopted something called "the neighborhood philosophy." Guess what: they abandoned the Soviet model and returned to cooking local food on site. The new approach creates less food waste and records huge energy savings. Patients are even smiling again. Fortunately, these facilities aren't run by a centralizing Cookie Monster with petro dollars in his pocket.

In addition to restoring neighborly thinking, Read has another novel idea. And Marguerite Edwards thinks it's a good one too.

"Perhaps everyone who works for Alberta Health Services should eat this 'nutritious' food for the rest of their lives and pay for it as residents in long term care do as part of their accommodation fee." And all the MLAs at the legislature too.

But until the province starts running on taxes as opposed to volatile oil revenues or sets up responsible stabilization fund as recommended by the CD Howe Institute or seriously invests in smart democratic public policy development, Alberta's dysfunctional petro will continue to centralize and concentrate and thereby abuse the elderly, the weak and the poor. And why? To enrich Cookie Monsters from Australia.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Food

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