Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Staff bottom of food chain

Never mind the quality of the meals; just feel for the laid-off workers if hospital cooking is centralised

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

I was visiting a relative in hospital the other week, and when dinner was served at the sophisticated hour of 4.45pm, we waited in breathless anticipation as the contents were revealed.

Uncovering the plate, we found a dish we couldn't name. It didn't resemble anything I'd previously experienced, and we had to scramble for the accompanying slip of white paper to discover it was, in fact, chicken cacciatore.

Hmmm. I don't suppose fresh herbs, red wine and free-range chicken legs were available, yet apart from the food's unsavoury appearance, it didn't seem to matter. My relative enjoyed the meal - as much as any in-patient could - and I have to say that from the sidelines it looked nice and hot, and smelled fine.

I couldn't help but think the meal would have looked a hell of a lot worse if it had been cooked several days in advance, shipped from a North Island hub, deposited in hospital freezers, unthawed, reheated, and sent up to the ward. It would probably taste worse as well.

Tony Ryall may scoff at the notion that central hubs wouldn't be capable of preparing appetising food for the country's hospitals, but I would love to see him exist on such provisions for a week, then gauge his honest opinion.

Taste aside, I was more concerned about all the people who would be put out of work by Ryall's daft, counterintuitive plan to scrape all the fat off the hospital food budget. I mean to say, many of the people concerned work for Spotless Services, a company so flinty you'd have to get rid of two thirds of them to make even a lick of difference to the overall budget.

That's probably in the blueprint, of course. But what a fatuous blueprint it is.

One that looks at the people of this country, trying to live decent lives and raise families, as a pesky additional cost on an accountant's ledger. Leading to us tipping many vulnerable people out of the workforce and expecting they will fend for themselves.

OK, so it's a bit of a leap, but from the US this week came news that the suicide rate of people born between 1946 and 1964 - people who are now undeniably "middle aged" - had risen by almost a third in the decade to 2010. This is an age group that usually has a relatively low suicide rate compared to other groups. But a tanking economy, which has not just increased their own financial pressure, but also made their children and their elderly parents even more dependent on the middle-agers, has taken its toll.

Since 2007, millions of middle-aged Americans have lost their jobs, and now close to a quarter of them are either under- or unemployed. Savings have been decimated, retirement plans raided, and 4 million homes foreclosed on since 2007. High levels of credit bondage, chronic disease and disability, and yes, suicide, are the result of this economic upheaval.

According to New Zealand statistics, suicide rates for adults aged 45-64 have also been rising since 2001. Perhaps the loss of several hundred jobs preparing hospital meals doesn't make a difference to this statistic; perhaps it's a leap to see a connection.

But what we do know is that the further into middle age you are, the less likely it is that you'll be easily integrated back into the workforce, with all the attendant problems that entails. Perhaps Tony Ryall could chew on that for a while.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

Read more by Dita De Boni

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