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The quality of the food and dining experience the aged care industry provides to its customers has become increasingly in the spotlight since much-loved Australian food personality Maggie Beer got on board.

Amongst the many thank you letters Maggie Beer has received since launching her quest to improve the food experience in aged care homes is one that particularly delighted her.

Penned by the staff at one home, it described the effect the establishment of a kitchen veggie garden had on one resident.

“It encouraged one man who hadn’t left his room for months to venture outside and plant vegetables,” says the respected food identity who almost three years ago launched her Maggie Beer Foundation (MBF) with a vision to transform the food culture of aged care.

“I couldn’t get the smile off my face. I’ve seen so many wonderful changes taking place but that was a standout.”

Channelling her passion

Having built a stellar career fuelled by a passion for sharing her love of good food, it was being named Senior Australian of the Year in 2010 that led Beer to focus her sights on the older generation.

Preparing a speech for an aged care conference, Beer did some research into foodservice practices in the industry and was dismayed. Along with much that was good, she says she found “a lot of not so good approaches” to the dining experience in homes and immediately wanted to make a difference.

Beer launched the MBF in April 2014, gathering a heavyweight board of people from various areas including aged care, academics specialising in aged care and health, business leaders and fellow chefs to work together to tackle the task.

Since then the MBF has been making an impact with its strategy of working to educate and inspire foodservice staff within the aged care industry, highlighting through research the effects of a better food and dining experience on residents’ health and overall quality of life – and advocating for increased standards.

An appetite for life

A key part of the plan is MBF’s ‘Creating An Appetite For Life’ program, a series of workshops in which more than 90 aged care cooks and chefs have taken part. This year the program is expanding into regional areas, including workshops designed for CEOs and managers.

Beer’s vision of the ideal aged care home is one that offers a social dining environment where meal choices are available to residents based on fresh food and seasonal ingredients, perhaps from the home’s own kitchen garden, plus the ‘little things’ that add to meal time enjoyment like music and good company. “My ultimate goal is to provide flavoursome food to everyone, regardless of age or dietary requirements, to educate and facilitate the food we all deserve,” she says.

“Appreciation for good food should never be taken for granted and, especially for those in their later years, it can often be the main focus of connection to their life before becoming a resident in an aged care home.

“We know food and the enjoyment of food has a huge impact on the emotional wellbeing of residents and we believe that enhanced food experiences have a measurable and positive impact on the quality of life of our elders.”

Beer’s strategy is to focus on shining the light on the aged care operators and staff who are taking the lead and then to hopefully benchmark best practice across Australia. In the MBF’s sights are the establishment of best practice awards in the sector and a system of certification.

“What I want to do is to find the great exponents of aged care, so we can celebrate them with the acknowledgement they deserve,” she says. “My purpose is not to focus on the negatives but to put fresh thinking around residents’ wellbeing, nutritious ingredients, food budgeting, supplier relationships, aged care specific recipes, menus and dining room management.”

Aged-care food culture champion

Long-time champion of the importance of food on residents’ wellbeing, HammondCare Chief Executive Stephen Judd is one of Beer’s biggest supporters. He says her involvement has boosted awareness about the issue of aged care food and the need to move away from rigid institutional food preparation systems.

It was Beer that Dr Judd turned to for advice on how to further enhance the already strong food culture at HammondCare. On her recommendation, Dr Judd looked to the restaurant world to find the right person for the position of HammondCare’s executive chef and food ambassador, eventually appointing Peter Morgan-Jones, the chef whose CV includes head chef at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW and cooking for the British Royal family.

Since his appointment, Morgan-Jones has become a passionate advocate for the MBF, playing a key role in its education program and workshops.

Under Dr Judd, HammondCare’s focus on its food culture has encompassed building design, staff training and encouraging thought leadership on the subject, with an emphasis on freshly-cooked food, small home-like kitchens where meals are prepared from scratch, and increased choice for residents. Pioneering has been Morgan-Jones’ work around producing appealing food for special needs residents.

“Food is one of the joys of life and should not be taken away,” Dr Judd says. “And not just the eating of it; even the smells, sounds and sights of food being prepared is all part of the experience. It’s part of the rhythm of life. We’re not just providing nutrition; we could just give tablets if that was the goal.”

Better budgeting needed

A great deal of the difficulties the MBF is trying to tackle comes from “inadequate budgeting” for meals in aged care, says Beer. But she adds her work with homes demonstrates the financial viability of the changes she’s advocating.

“I’ll be the first to acknowledge those restraints but so much of the troubleshooting we’re helping homes with is resulting in savings to the bottom line,” she says.

“Incorporating simple things like fresh stock, butter and fresh rather than frozen veggies has resulted in less waste because residents are happier to eat full-flavoured meals. Impacting someone’s food choices may only take a slight shift in perspective from management but makes such a difference to that person’s life.”

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