Why healing costs more than your morning cup of Joe

If we want to reduce patient stays and prevent re-admission, invest in food and foodservice so that our chefs and foodservice professionals can dispense from a more effective culinary pharmacy.

One of the least inspiring places to hangout in a hospital or clinic is the pharmacy. People are there to pick up some kind of pharmaceutical intervention for reasons neither you nor I will ever know. No one is happy or bouncing around (except the random kid). Usually the pharmacy waiting area is full of people who are anxious, looking for relief, bored or simply distracted with their phone and the droning, inescapable television. 

But not too far away, and often buried two floors down in the basement, is the other pharmacy. Typical signage points you to “Foodservice” or “Cafeteria.” You don’t equate this place with a pharmacy. Why would you?   After all YOU have a prescription to pick up medication in the form of capsules or tablets or liquid, but you don’t have one to pick up food. Here we have a fundamental disconnect.  Medicinal institutions should have two signs. One sign points you to the drug-based pharmacy, because some people need life-saving drugs. The other sign, which should blink in HUGE letters that spell “OPEN,” is the Culinary Pharmacy. The Culinary Pharmacy is where you collect food that heals you. 

Hospitals are not for vacations

Meanwhile back in the hospital basement, chefs and foodservice professionals struggle to put healing food on patient plates. At the same time they’re also cranking out a variety of food to meet breakfast, lunch and dinner demands for the resident hospital staff. The disconnect is this: the drugs you collect at the upstairs pharmacy require a co-pay and cost a bunch more than the few bucks you willingly drop on a meal. The foodservice department, on the other hand, is forced to crank out food to feed a patient THREE meals a day for less than the cost of the $2 coffee you are grabbing on your way to work. Let me say that again: YOUR MORNING COFFEE COSTS MORE THAN THE DOLLARS ASSIGNED TO FEED A PATIENT FOR A DAY. 

Think about that? An inpatient is not in hospital for a vacation. They are there for a reason. The way they get out of hospital is through healing. Food is the foundation that powers the biochemical bits and bytes of our physiological engine. It is required for healing. Food shares similar biochemical highways as drugs. Why then are we forcing our hospital and school kitchens to magically conjure up deep nourishment with maximum flavor for people who need healing food, and all this on a per person daily budget that is less than your morning cup of Joe? 

Certain ingredients should be on auto re-order

Creativity is not missing among the chefs I know who work hospital foodservice, or school foodservice for that matter. Money is.  If we want to reduce patient stays and prevent re-admission, invest in food and foodservice so that our chefs and foodservice professionals can dispense from a more effective culinary pharmacy. In this era of genomic medicine, we KNOW that specific foods contain bioactive compounds that talk to our genes. Genes can make the difference between turning on your pain and inflammation faucet, or turning it down to a trickle. We’re talking onions, garlic, rosemary, thyme, capers, curcumin, elderberries and more. Do you seriously think that a trained chef in a hospital kitchen would turn down the opportunity to work with these ingredients?  What about powerhouses like sesame seeds, seaweed, chickpeas, flax and Brazil nuts? Just like the Tylenol at the upstairs pharmacy, these ingredients should be on auto re-order. 

Genomics tells us which ingredients to use, why we should use them and how they work. They belong in every hospital kitchen, and in your kitchen too for that matter. Folks, healing is not achieved by a low fat diet, a threshold of 25 g of fiber on your inpatient plate, or a 1200 calorie diet which are routine prescriptions the hospital kitchen has to fill. Healing requires access to a Culinary Pharmacy that can be individualized to your genes. For goodness sake, if we can compound drugs to match your physiological capacity, why can’t we generate patient meals using foods that have food-gene cross-talk potential? Why are we happy to dispense drugs, but leave ingredients with demonstrated food-gene influence off the menu?  This is not a chef problem because a chef knows how to cook most anything. It is a financial problem and one that is essentially delaying the healing process.

So next time you are in the hospital lobby, let me know if you can find the Culinary Pharmacy. It should be the sign with that Vegas-style flashing red arrow that’s about ten feet tall.

Amanda Archibald, RD is the Principal of Field to Plate and Chief Operations Officer for NCG Health Solutions.  She introduced the world to the concept of Culinary Genomics