By Jon Milton
“In senior’s facilities, food is something that residents should be able to look forward to,” says Karen Weiers. “Residents should be able to smell the aroma, to anticipate the taste. It’s such an important part of life.”
Weiers, a Vice-President of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), has experience organizing to keep public services public, including food systems in healthcare. When she worked at the Peter Lougheed Centre, she was the AUPE chapter chair, and was often the go-to person for co-workers experiencing problems at work.
One day, she got a call from cafeteria workers that management was going to outsource their jobs to a private company taking over the retail section of the cafeteria. Weiers and her fellow workers cooked up a plan to fight back.
“We did an action, we dug deeper into why it was being privatized, we held meetings with the members who would be affected,” Weiers says. “The members identified key decision-makers in AHS, and wrote them letters about how the move would affect them as workers, as family members, and as community members. The workers left info cards on the tables in the cafeteria for workers and members of the public to understand what was going on.”
By the time the chapter was finished, the hospital administration cancelled the privatization plan.
“It was the workers themselves who stood up and took the action necessary to stop the privatization. It wasn’t me,” Weiers says. “The workers were in the driver’s seat, and they drove to a win.”
Food is something that residents should be able to look forward to. Residents should be able to smell the aroma, to anticipate the taste.
Today, Premier Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party are aiming to privatize more than just one hospital’s food services. Following the Blue-Ribbon Report on Alberta Health Services, the government has been crusading to privatize a wide range of support services in healthcare. One of the sectors targeted for privatization is food services.
According to the AHS Implementation Plan, the health authority will privatize inpatient food services in April 2023 across the network. It’s no longer a single hospital or healthcare institution, but the entire system that is under threat.
For food services workers, this plan is raising a lot of alarms. For one thing, workers know that outsourced work—for those who are lucky enough to get rehired at all—will come with significant reductions in wages and benefits. This would be a blow not just to the workers, but also to their families, and to their whole communities—particularly rural communities.
“The other issue is that with privatization, you have a revolving door of staff,” Weiers says. “Because these companies aren’t committed to their workers the way public services are. The staff is on rotation, and you don’t get the same level of dedication.”
She’s seen how dedicated public sector staff are to serving good food to patients. In 2012, when she was the head of AUPE’s Anti-Privatization Committee, Weiers was a part of the union’s “Tough to Swallow” campaign, which successfully brought back some fresh-cooked food to continuing care facilities.
The previous menu—a cost-cutting initiative from the Progressive Conservative government of the time—was standardized at 78 hospitals and nursing homes across Alberta. The food was prepared at a central facility, vacuum sealed, and then shipped to the facilities. All food services workers could do was re-heat the food—not cook it fresh.
“Workers did the best they could, but they didn’t have a lot of options to make the food better,” Weiers says.
With a viral video and a pressure campaign, workers across the province organized scrap the menu. Fred Horne, the Health Minister at the time, said that he wouldn’t serve the food to his mother. Because of pressure from workers, fresh-cooked food returned to those care homes and hospitals.
But Alberta isn’t alone in needing workers to force the menu to change for the better. In Toronto, Joshna Maharaj has been fighting for better institutional food for a long time. The chef has dedicated herself to advocating for the rights of patients in healthcare institutions, students, and incarcerated people to have quality food.
“We can serve scratch-made food that is prepared on-site to patients in a way that is helpful to the local economy and respectful of the earth,” Maharaj says. “We can change every step, from procurement to cooking to service to managing waste.”
“The change I want to see is wholeheartedly pro-labour,” she says. “I want more people to be employed in kitchens, for us to value the hands that handle our food.”
In 2011, she got her first opportunity to try out her ideas, at the Scarborough Hospital. It was, she says, a learning experience.
“It was just so much more complicated than I expected,” Maharaj says. “There was one scenario where I wanted to put roasted potatoes on a hospital tray for lunch. As I did that one different thing, everything else shifted—now we had potato peels, so we had to put them in the organic waste bins... And we hadn’t been using those bins before, so now we need to signal to the city that we need organics pickup.”
As an advocate for food workers, Maharaj was in a tricky position as a manager, running into skepticism from workers while she was attempting to transform the working environment. After years of cutbacks, workers understandably bristled at the idea of restructuring.
“So many of the workers had been at their jobs for at least 20 years,” Maharaj says. “A lot of them had the memory of the time when we did cook food at hospitals, when we made food from scratch, when we had five vegetable cooks, when we made fresh rolls every morning. They also had the memory of years and years of shrinking budgets. They had figured it out with what was given to them.”
The main lesson from that, she says, is that workers need to be in a position to help lead the process of improving institutional food. “We didn’t consider the union or the workers early enough,” she says. “Right from the beginning, they need to be at the table.”
”Once the team started tasting things, and using their senses, once we started asking them what kind of foods were served in their homes, with their family, for healing,” Maharaj says, “to see them come to life in a really different way was incredible. So many of these folks really lit up when they could be proud of the food they were serving to students or to patients."
“We need steady jobs and fair wages, and the jobs need to fulfill our humanity,” she says. "We can build a system that had both the security of the jobs—with good wages, advocacy, and support—with inspired work.”
I want more people to be employed in kitchens, for us to value the hands that handle our food.
If food systems are going to improve, then workers need to play an active role in the planning. Karen Weiers has seen what happens when profit-seeking corporations try to take control of the food system, as they’re trying to do now with the UCP privatization plan.
“When you privatize the service, the new company is just concerned with cost-cutting, and profit becomes the main objective,” Weiers says. “So, the food has no flavour and doesn’t have enough nutritional value beyond the bare minimum. And workers end up with less as well—lower wages, less benefits, and worse working conditions. Both workers and patients end up losing when workers aren’t given the right materials to work with. Workers keep doing the best they can, but they can only do so much without having access to better quality food.”
In continuing care homes, Weiers says that cost-cutting is insulting. “These residents in seniors care facilities helped build our province. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Providing them with good quality food is the absolute minimum.”
Poor quality food in hospitals also increases healthcare costs overall. If the average cost of treating a patient in a hospital bed is $1,500 a day, and if poor quality food increases the length of a patient’s stay by just 1%, then privatizing food services in Alberta would cost nearly $43 million per year.
“When workers are invested in their workplace, they can lead the charge to making things better, both for themselves and for patients,” Weiers says. “You see that in public services, and that is harder in the private sector, because there’s no accountability. For workers, residents, and patients, we need to keep these services public—and not just keep them public but improve them.”
If workers had their way, then the food we serve at institutions like continuing care homes and hospitals would be the same type of food we serve to our friends and loved ones. We should be serving home-style, locally-sourced, fresh food to patients and residents. Patients and residents should be able to smell the food and look forward to eating it.
The thing that’s standing in the way of a better food system is governments and corporations focus on the bottom-line, instead of the health and wellness of patients.
“Workers, residents, and patients need to stand together to fight for a better food system,” Weiers says. “We’re in this together.”