07/07/2014 10:33 EDT | Updated 09/06/2014 05:59 EDT

$2 hospital meals could cause malnutrition, dietitians warn

The decreasing quality and quantity of food at Quebec hospitals and government-run seniors’ residences has at least one nutritionist concerned that elderly, sick or injured people may be malnourished.

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The provincial government recently announced it could cut up to $600 million in health-related spending by 2018.

An average meal at a Quebec hospital or CHSLD (government-run seniors’ residence) now costs less than $2 according to some estimates, and further cuts may be on the way.

Nobody expects a five-star meal in a hospital, said nutritionist Catherine Lefebvre, and her 92-year-old grandmother isn’t very hungry these days anyway. But she’s concerned about the upcoming budget cuts’ effect on hospital food, and how it affects patients like her grandmother.

“She has trouble recovering. The physiotherapist is saying, ‘You know, that she has difficulty to walk, she’s not strong enough to walk,’” Lefebvre said.

But while the cuts to the province’s hospital network are designed to trim administrative fat, some say the government is cutting right down to the bone.

“A balanced meal, forget it! We don’t have that anymore in CHSLDs or in hospitals. Excuse me, but it’s really hard,” retired auxiliary nurse Claudette Patenaude told Radio-Canada.

The problem isn’t new, however.

Nutritionist and University of Montreal professor Michel Sanscartier said part of the issue is the way food budgets figure into the way Quebec measures hospital’s performance. He said that has already led to so many cuts and a lack of inflation indexing that food budgets are now stretched beyond their limits.

"Every year we have to cut because we don't have the indexation so since food costs more we need to have more money," Sanscartier said.

It's not awful but it's not great, either: patient

The province’s professional order of dietitians has been asking the health minister to intervene for some time, Sanscartier said. He is calling for the government to revise the way it measures health care centre performance.

He said an average of $1.60 a meal is a drop in the bucket compared to the $7.76 a day the order of dietitians has calculated to be the average spent on food by healthy Quebecers.

Francine Charbonneau, Quebec’s minister responsible for seniors, said the government’s figures are a bit different. She said hospitals and CHSLDs spend $6.38 a day per patient on food; she added that bulk buying helps reduce costs.

Members of the order of dietitians said that institutions have begun cutting more expensive items like yogurt and cheese to compensate for the cuts.

Each hospital is responsible for its menus, and as a result, some feed their patients better than others. “It’s not horrible, but it’s not great either,” one patient commenting on the food at St-Luc Hospital told Radio-Canada.

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said on Friday that he wanted to take more time to look at the situation before commenting.