"Just think of how you would feel, if you were told that for the next week, someone else is going to choose what you're going to eat."
Elizabeth Zangari was frustrated to learn about changes to Windsor Regional Hospital's food program, which have resulted in a standardized menu for all mental health patients.
Zangari spent a week in the psychiatric ward for treatment following the birth of her baby. While she was a patient in mid-August, the changes had yet to be put in place.
At that point in time, she said that patients got to choose each of their meals from three options, but she learned that changes were coming. The standardized program for psychiatric patients kicked in at the end of August.
As of Sept. 9, breakfast also became standardized for the entire hospital, but most patients continue to have multiple choices when it comes to lunch and dinner.
For mental health patients, however, that is not the case. Each patient gets their own serving of food on their own plates and tray, like all other patients in the hospital, but they eat together in the same room, as they have in the past, and will no longer get to choose which meal they get.
The hospital calls this arrangement "family-style" and it applies to all three meals of the day.
"That's not right," Zangari said.
Changes to reduce waste, save funds
Monica Stanton, the director of guest services for the hospital, said the changes to the hospital's food program were made to save money and reduce waste.
"What we really wanted to do is have a more family-style approach with those patients, so that they're sitting down together, they're all eating the same sort of thing," she said.
"One of the things that would happen [before the changes] is we would have a patient who would be sitting beside a person that had a different item that they were eating and they may decide, 'Well, I would rather have that.'"
She explained that the kitchen often ended up having to send up extra food which would lead to more waste. She added that sometimes patients would select all three options presented to them, resulting in staff making the choice for the patient anyway.
To combat those kinds of situations, Stanton said, the hospital decided to make sure every patience eats the same thing, unless they're vegetarian or are on a specific diet.
Any dietary restrictions or preferences established upon admission will be noted and respected, Stanton explained.
She said Windsor Regional Hospital makes sure that it serves fresh food everyday, which is a costlier food program compared to many other hospitals across the province.
As a result, after reviewing its budget this year, the hospital decided it needed to fall in line financially with other hospitals.
Windsor Regional decided to cut 12 per cent from its annual $7 million budget for food services in order to save $840,000.
Toronto-based food activist Joshna Maharaj said standardized meals are not uncommon throughout the province and she acknowledged that a lot of hospitals are in a tight spot with their budgets.
"There is no fat left. We are scraping bone on food budgets," she said.
But she's curious about the singling out of the psychiatric ward.
"This is somebody deciding that something about the way they are serving their food is no longer worth spending money on," she said.
"If we, in fact, had the top priority as excellent patient care, we wouldn't, in fact, be trimming food budgets like this."
Concerns being voiced
Stanton said that she has not received "a lot" of complaints about the changes.
"But the complaints that I have received, we certainly are trying to work with the team, the mental health team, to do whatever we can to help the patients," she said.
"I did meet with the psychiatry director there to look at what else — other options that we can do to sort of help mitigate these complaints."
According to Steve Erwin, head of corporate communications for the hospital, there wasn't one particular reason for the financial cuts to the food program budget, but was part of the hospital's annual budget review.
He explained that running two separate campuses brings challenges to the hospital's cost structure.
"If we had one hospital, we could bring those costs down substantially and probably not have to make some of the decisions we're making in terms of food service options."
He added that the hospital is always looking for ways to find savings that don't impact front-line care.
Zangari said being a mental health patient is challenging enough, adding that patients should at least have a choice when it comes to their food.
"We don't get to go outside, there's not a whole lot to do while you're in this area. You don't get to bring in any outside food or drinks or anything," she said.
"It was sad to see something else get taken away from people who are trying to get the help they need."