October 9, 2014

What are we eating?

By Carl Gustafson

Contrary to popular belief, Facebook can be good for something every now and then. While wasting precious time on Facebook (shh! don’t tell my PI!), I stumbled across this blog post, by an endocrinologist in California who compared his dining experience at the Googleplex, to his dining experiences at various hospitals.

I sure hope Google starts hiring pharmacologists because his blog raved about the cafeteria food in Mountain View. I don’t know about you, but a good salad bar and a name like “Mountain View” is enough to make me want to apply for a position.

This article spurred me a little. Aside from preparing my CV, I started paying more attention to the food being served on the Mayo campus; as a result, I began asking a few internal questions, which are soon to become external questions, like...wait for itttt… “Are these meals really designed to be healthy for me? Are we serving food that is intended to encourage healthy lifestyles? Why does my “Wellness Entrée” come with an oddly yellow scoop of mystery rice jello? Why haven’t I heard back from my job application at Google? Why are there so many unhealthy options? Are we legitimately invested in promoting better employee and visitor health or not?”

Well, I have decided I’m going to go with “not.”

Every day I walk past the South elevators in Medical Sciences building and there is a sign with, what I assume is supposed to be, a motivational quote on it. It brightly suggests “Take the stairs for a healthier you! + (insert motivational quote).” I’ve seen these signs near every elevator on the Mayo campus and I think they are intended to make me think about eating leafy greens and going to cable class at the Dan. In reality, they make me think about vomiting a little, then taking the elevator out of spite. The point is this: though the posters are well-meaning, it’s quite hypocritical to start a sign campaign in favor of healthy eating and exercise when we actively sponsor unhealthy diets (and thus, lifestyle) in our own campus cafeterias and restaurants. We deliver our patients world-class health care for their struggle with diabetes and heart failure, so to help them along their way we offer Daube’s donuts and Cinnabon, right under their hotel. If they’re really interested in getting a nice, balanced, healthy meal they can go to Subway... Ouch. To be fair, I do not know that Mayo Clinic actively leases these spaces to any of the aforementioned restaurants or has control over the use of this space in any way (in fact, it’s safe to bet that they do not). I simply assume that if Mayo actually did not want Cinnabon there, then Cinnabon would not be there. Further, there are patient cafeterias. I have never been to one. Therefore, it is possible that they only serve delicious and healthy foodstuffs to our lucky, diet-conscious patients. The reality may be that the menus developed at these wondrous patient dining halls are vastly different from our own, employee targeted eating establishments. I will daringly assume the opposite. Harwick serves up fried pork sandwiches slobbered with mayo, chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, soda, cakes, and puddings. You will have to look long and hard for kale, squash, salt-free nuts, brown rice, whole grain breads, or low sodium, minimally processed meats. Interestingly, I have never found the organic / whole foods section at the cafeteria. Methodist cafeteria is only slightly better, possibly because it is larger and possibly by accident. We are willing to invest in bigger buildings, recruit world-renowned speakers, and subsidize wellness campaigns, all under the guise of benefiting human health. We even sponsor an entire exercise event dedicated to “Healthy Humans.” While we’re at it, maybe we could cut the façade and sponsor some blueberries to replace the Fritos.

Sodexo Group, a contractor that provides facilities management and food services to a large number of businesses around the world, employs the Food and Nutrition Services and Environmental Services work groups at Mayo Clinic as of September of this year. We have a contract with them to provide food for the various cafeterias and in-room patient dining needs on campus. Outsourcing our food choices to a vendor is convenient. They will efficiently provide the food that most people want on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, nutrition is not a popularity contest and it is often not convenient or easy. If we offer cheese curds, people will buy them. If we offer Dairy Queen, our patients will line up for Blizzards. We need to take upon ourselves the responsibility of patient and employee health and nutrition.

It’s time we stopped being simply interested in employee and patient health. We need to be invested in employee and patient health. Sign campaigns are nice, and one day they did motivate me to take the stairs (for a healthier you!) all the way to Gonda 19… but there are more direct ways to help each other and our patients in achieving healthier lifestyles. The solutions to this problem begin with a change in attitude. We must realize that our reputation as a health-care provider is being tarnished when our patients, peers and supporters observe our carelessness in daily nutrition. The consistent delivery of wasteful, nutrition lacking food-products to employees and patients needs to end. To replace it, we ought to invest in legitimate and wholesome, healthy meals and snacks. This means we cut the french toast and add in a green smoothie bar. It requires that we chop the cheese curds and substitute squash and quinoa. To make this change intentional and well-designed we can recruit diet and nutrition counselors. Yes, maybe we should say goodbye to Carrol’s Cup (*gasp!*) and trays of cookies at every seminar, ever. These cafeteria offerings and other dining choices are undermining our credibility as an institution that seeks the better health of the nation and the world. We consistently set an example that millions of people observe and follow, and we have the power to change how we present ourselves. If Google can eat healthy, so can we. Although, I suppose I don’t really know if they do. They haven’t invited me out for that interview…yet.

Carl Gustafson is a third-year PhD student in Michael J. Yaszemski's laboratory.

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I'm so glad someone finally said this. I've been thinking exactly this for years. Thanks.


Yay! I agree. But I have to say that Harwick recently started serving a salmon strawberry salad thing that is really great!

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