After more than 35 years in the food industry, Maggie Beer has turned her attention to advocacy and set her sights on aged care. She talks to AAA about her new foundation and inspiring a positive food culture.
Renowned food author and chef Maggie Beer describes her new crusade to improve the quality of food in aged care as like opening Pandora’s box.
While the task may be huge, she says she’s surrounded by a team of passionate and knowledgeable people and ultimately she’s in it for the long-haul.
Launched at Tasting Australia in May, The Maggie Beer Foundation has been established to fund a series of projects to help shape the food culture in aged care and change practice where it is needed.
Her first task involves working with three residential aged care facilities in South Australia – of varying size and with different budgets and food service offerings – to demonstrate what is possible.
The pilot project, which commenced in late June, will be evaluated by Flinders University and involves regional aged care providers Abbeyfield aged care and SA Health’s Mount Pleasant Hospital, as well as Allity’s 123-bed Ridgehaven residential care centre located in the outer suburbs of Adelaide. Alongside this work, Beer says the foundation is also keen to highlight and celebrate best practice as a way of setting a high benchmark for others to follow.
“The ambition is to be a catalyst for change, where it is needed, to raise the standard of food in aged care,” Beer tells Australian Ageing Agenda.
“I know there are many fantastic places that do it so well and so proudly, but I also know that there are many places where food is not considered important, other than for nutritional sustenance, and that for me is anathema.”
At the core of her work is a desire to promote the connection between food and wellbeing and to reclaim the joy of mealtimes. “The simplest and most immediate way to give residents pleasure every day is to give them a lovely meal,” she says.
Beer outlines a vision to promote culture change by demonstrating the difference good food can make to the lives of residents and to empower facilities to implement change locally. “It’s all about the food and the flavour, the freshness and seasonality and buying well from local sources. That’s what makes the difference, but it is also about the dining experience.”
Reflecting on her approach, Beer says she will be working with aged care providers from the ground up rather than imposing change from above.
“I want to take people with me and find ways to excite them.” she says. “For me, the significant change that is necessary is that the leadership within aged care has to believe how important food is to what they do. After that, everything else can change.”
And she says tight budgets are no excuse. “With great thought and understanding of food, there is no doubt you can do so much more than what many people think,” she says.
Trevor Cook, food service manager at Ridgehaven, one of the pilot sites which operates from a central production kitchen, says he is excited about the passion, big ideas and local food knowledge that Beer will bring to the partnership. He says:
“I’m excited that Maggie has chosen us and it’s great to have her on board. In the long-term, I hope it will set a new standard for food industry-wide.”
At the community-owned Abbeyfield aged care facility in Williamstown, all 23 residents and 29 staff will be involved in the pilot project. General manager Barbara Wieland says a key focus will be on maximising flavour, aroma and food presentation and shifting the focus of mealtimes to a more restaurant-style approach.
“Maggie Beer has been involved with researching the different food groups that maximise residents’ optimal health which will be exciting to learn more about,” Wieland says, adding that it will also present an opportunity for the facility to review its food budget and strengthen consumer choice.
Wieland says she hopes other services will be able to learn from Abbeyfield’s experiences as the project explores innovative methods to meet the food preferences of residents, as well as residents on a texture-modified diet.
A steering committee at Abbeyfield made up of the facility’s chef, a member of the clinical team and a resident’s representative will deliver feedback on the pilot’s progress to the rest of the facility.
Wieland says an openness to change will be critical to project’s success. She says:
“It’s about education and the willingness of people working in aged care services to look forward rather than saying, ‘this is the way we have always done it’.”
Beer says the idea for the foundation grew from an invitation to address the annual ACSA national conference in Hobart in 2010 during her period as Senior Australian of the Year. After travelling around to facilities in South Australia and Victoria in preparation for the talk, Beer was struck by a desire to see some things desperately change in the sector.
Grappling with how she could make a difference, she met with the then federal minister for ageing, South Australian MP Mark Butler to discuss a possible partnership with the former government. However, with the distraction of a federal election and an ultimate change in power, her plans took a different turn and she decided to go it alone and set up a not-for-profit foundation inspired by the motto, ‘a good food life for all.’
She says she hopes the foundation will also be a conduit for research and its practical application, and Beer has already lent her support to The Lantern Project, spearheaded by Gold Coast dietitian, Cherie Hugo.
Addressing training is also on the agenda, with Beer and fellow South Australian chef Simon Bryant in talks with TAFE SA to put together an accredited training program for cooks and chefs in aged care. As a highly complex area, Beer says that specialised training is necessary to support staff to meet the needs of residents with dementia or dysphasia.
Heading up the foundation’s national board of directors are a number of big thinkers and strategists including Macquarie University’s Vice Chancellor Bruce Dowton, former Australian Consul-General in Tokyo Wendy Holdenson, who developed an interest in food in aged care while in Japan, and senior partner in Price Waterhouse Coopers Kevin Reid, who works with organisations such as Meals on Wheels SA and Southern Cross Care SA & NT.
As for the absence of direct aged care industry representation on the board, Beer says she wanted the foundation to be “ears open to all the good and all the bad”, and she will continue to seek sector input and feedback through various forums.
She says she will also be drawing on the pioneering work of HammondCare’s executive chef and food ambassador, Peter Morgan-Jones.
A long but shared journey
Beer describes this “complex journey” as one she is on for the rest of her life, but also as a collaborative effort. “I have a lot of really passionate people around me who are so generous in sharing their knowledge.
“It is a huge task. It could be overwhelming if we didn’t understand that we need to do this step by step. It’s all about involving others and leading CEOs and staff to understand what a huge difference good food makes to the everyday life of residents, if they don’t already know it. I have heard and seen some of the most amazing things, but it has to be everywhere.”