Everywhere we look another edible schoolyard is sprouting. Schoolchildren all over the country are getting their hands dirty, then watching the magical transformation of seed to vegetable. In the most progressive schools they are bringing their produce into the cafeteria to clean it and cook it and enjoy the taste of fresh food. Junk-food and soda-vending machines are being removed from school cafeterias; some districts even outlaw lunchtime visits to fast-food restaurants. The national concern for our children is important and timely, and it’s one that I share. When my own daughter was small I tried to get the local school system to allow more than twenty minutes for lunch—the kids would wolf down their food and sometimes not even eat in their eagerness for a few extra minutes of recess. My attempts failed. The social and cultural importance of setting aside an unrushed time for the children to commune over lunch and savor their meal had to yield to the demands of scheduling.
These days my daughter is lucky enough to be at a college where healthy eating and local foods are considered part of the larger education. But I am still thinking about institutional meals—except now at the other end of the age spectrum. Last spring my mother fell into serious decline and had to enter long-term convalescent care. My mother is someone who always cared passionately about food. In her hands a simple roast chicken was transformed into a dish that both embodied longing and fulfilled desire. And oh, her sweet and sour meatballs! Now she can no longer command her kitchen; she is presented with three generic meals a day. I recognize that the trays are put together with an eye to variety as well as nutrition, and that on a certain level my mother is getting the best possible care. But even in her diminished state she discerns what tastes good and what does not, and she responds accordingly.
This experience is shared by many elderly people who find themselves in institutional care at the end of their lives. Yet hardly anyone is speaking out about better food for the elderly. We tend to avert our eyes, to rationalize that in old age the sense of taste has diminished. The eating habits of the elderly are not a public-health issue, like Type-2 diabetes or childhood obesity. But providing pleasure through food is not something frivolous; what and how we eat are crucial to the quality of our lives. The teams of nutritionists who work from charts to devise nutritionally sound menus, balanced in the standard American way with that sacred trinity of protein, vegetable, and starch, are missing something. Although this kind of quantitative analysis serves patients’ physical needs, it falls very short on their mnemonic ones—their rich memories—something that should be foremost at the end of life. Swedish studies have shown that the foods served in old-age homes make a huge difference in the way patients feel, even those suffering from senile dementia. If the institution is able to tap into the food culture in which a patient grew up, familiar foods can stimulate memories and actually improve cognition. The Proustian madeleine may seem like a hackneyed symbol, but in fact the aromas and flavors of times past can enable us to reconnect with the world, reawakening appetite not only for food but for life.
We should be every bit as concerned with the foods served to our old folks as to our young ones. Standardized, assembly-line cooking is admittedly more efficient, and individualized attention would require additional expense. But we’re caring for people here, not manufacturing something. It should not be too much for doctors and caregivers to ask a few more questions when assessing each patient. What are your culinary traditions? Do you have any comfort foods? Any aversions? How do you feel about broccoli and beets? These questions are so basic that no one ever thinks to ask them, but a meal that triggers a positive emotional response can make an enormous difference in a patient’s day. Thriving in old age is not simply a question of calorie counts and nutritional supplements. People of all ages deserve to enjoy their meals. Food should not be seen solely as sustenance, a means to keep people alive, but as an opportunity to connect helpless people in their declining years with memories that they hold close.