Weighing in on poutine

- June 27, 2008

(Nick Pearce Photo)

When Halifax's Citadel High School banned junk food in favour of healthier cafeteria fare, some students just crossed the road to get their fix. But it wasn't a fast food restaurant that served them the fries, burgers and pop they craved—it was a hospital cafeteria.

This got Rob Stevenson thinking: why would a hospital serve poutine?

Dr. Stevenson, now based in Saint John, N.B., didn't just wonder about it. As a resident with Dalhousie Medical School, he and a group of colleagues from the cardiology division of the QE II Health Sciences Centre crossed the same road to check out the high school's healthy offerings.

"We didn't think much of it—we had some pictures and video footage of the poutine-seeking students crossing paths with the heart-healthy-food-seeking health care workers," said Dr. Stevenson. "Then, we got calls from the media."

As a cardiology resident, he says finds himself in a unique position to speak out. "I was not actually an employee of the hospital, so I could speak a little more freely on the issue," he says. "There was this huge surge of support—seemingly endless voices of health care employees and visitors who were so glad to finally see some action in this area."

After a round local press coverage, the hospital issued a response suggesting that the cafeteria customers were adults "who can make their own decisions." The hospital also indicated there were healthy choices at the point of sale and there would be changes "sooner rather than later."

That wasn't soon enough for Dr. Stevenson. "Change happens in an instant," he says. "Every day is the perfect day to stop serving fries and doughnuts."

He wrote a column for the local newspaper on the issue. "Then, the floodgates opened," he says. "It seemed the irony of a hospital serving junk food to students really hit a nerve for many people."

The column he wrote has since been used in university courses at Simon Fraser University and at the University of New Brunswick. He's been featured in newspaper articles and interviewed by CBC TV. The story was also mentioned in a blog by Ontario physician Yoni Freedhoff, who described Dr. Stevenson as "an example of a young new doc, using his voice."

Finding himself an unexpected agent for change, he has found many other advocates within the hospital. He and his colleagues have formed an ad hoc watchdog group within the cardiology division to try to build constructive change.

He says there has been amazing support at the QEII itself, with an open dialogue established with the administration of the hospital as they work together to find a way forward. "Public Health and the Department of Health Promotion and Prevention have also been very helpful," he says.

Not content to simply ask for change, Dr. Stevenson is willing to take an even more hands-on approach. "I offered to get a few friends together to carry the deep-fat fryers out of the hospital, put them in my truck and drive them away."

READ: Tomatoes out but fries fine in the Chronicle-Herald | Hospital food under doctor's microscope in the National Post | Cheeseburger and fries anyone? MD exposes hospitals' deep-fried diets in the National Post

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