A question of taste

Food and shelter are key necessities for a caring society but lately, food quality for some of the most vulnerable in the South has been called into question.

It is not as though the South was not warned about the changes being made to Meals on Wheels as the Southern District Health Board decided to do away with most of its kitchen facilities and use Compass Group.

Disturbingly, a University of Otago human nutrition authority has warned the cash-strapped board may lose more money that it saves from the outsourcing, if people will not eat the food.

Associate Prof Winsome Parnell says the board may need to rethink its scheme as it may affect the health of older people.

The board may need to consider either bringing the production of meals back in-house or paying more for a better frozen meal.

The people who made the decision to bring the meals from the North Island did it on the basis of cost. But if the food is not eaten, there will be less healthy elderly and that will cost the board.

One of the issues in reheating frozen meals is inherent problems with taste.

If the elderly cancel the meals, as some have already done in both Dunedin and Invercargill, the affordability of alternative food for those people is expected to be an issue.

This problem about outsourcing meals was well telegraphed but yet, in an effort to save money and try to reduce the enormous debt under which it struggles, the Southern DHB chose to look to Compass for help.

The trucking in of the meals began in Dunedin on January 18, and a week earlier in Invercargill.

They are made in Auckland and Tauranga.

Changes to inpatient meals start next week.

They will not be frozen, but will use more prepared ingredients.

The scheme is expected to save nearly $7million over 15 years.

A specially-convened meeting in Dunedin with senior managers from Compass to discuss the problems with the health board is said to have been productive.

Clients who have cancelled the meals will be contacted to discuss the reasons.

In its defence, Compass says it has been providing Meals on Wheels services for more than 20 years in New Zealand and annually services more than 380,000 nationwide.

The company says it is important all its meals are good quality and to ensure recipients are getting the nutrition they need from them.

Any change in menu and meal service system takes time for people to get used to and Compass says there have been some recipients who indicated they do not enjoy the new meals as much as the earlier ones.

But there has been much positive feedback.

Despite all the toing and froing over who said what to whom, the situation is becoming worse by the day.

Compass has a long record of suppling Meals on Wheels, that much is true.

Forty-four people have cancelled their meals but changes to care arrangements for elderly people can also cause cancellations.

What is urgently required is a revision of the service.

Surely, it cannot be difficult for district health board commissioner team members to dine on Meals on Wheels - supplied by Compass - daily for a week and give the public their honest opinion on the state of the food.

To put it plainly, the commissioner team has been tasked with turning around a staggeringly large financial deficit and no-one should rule out saving money through outsourcing services.

But if the health of the elderly under the care of the Southern District Health Board becomes at risk through poor nutrition, it is up to those same people to find a solution before a small problem becomes much larger and harder to solve.

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