Inside Maggie Beer’s ‘Big Mission’ to transform food in aged care

Australian food icon Maggie Beer, left, gives some pointers to resident chef Sasanka Peiris. Photo: ABC

This is not your typical lunch but rather Beer’s “groundbreaking experiment” aimed at revamping the meals and dining experience at an Australian nursing home. The goal is to improve the physical and mental health of residents.

Spurred on by alarming findings from the recent Aged Care Royal Commission, which exposed high rates of malnutrition among older Australians living in aged care, Beer and her team of experts, including a speech pathologist and dietitian, transform the menu, dining rooms, gardens and the care model in a bid to improve the overall quality of life for both residents and staff.

The series takes place over four months at a nursing home in Perth, Western Australia. If successful, Beer hopes the experiment can pave the way to a new roadmap for a new model of aged care.

“I was horrified to hear the recent Royal Commission findings, which reveal that 68% of Australians in residential aged care are either at risk of malnutrition or are malnourished. The statistics are dire and totally unacceptable in our society,” she says in the opening episode.

“So, for the health and wellbeing of our senior Australians, I want to give aged care the overhaul it so desperately needs.”

Residents include Merle, 89, a former cook who loves baking; Isabella, 89, who loves gardening, going to the dining room and chatting to people; and Marion, 89, who says she’s content with her life at the Dr Mary Surveyor Centre, where she’s been living for the past two-and-a-half years.

Maggie Beer shares a poignant moment with 89-year-old resident Thelma. Photo: ABC

Early on, it’s revealed that research carried out by Associate Professor Jade Cartwright from the University of Tasmania on the health and wellbeing of residents found that 78% were worryingly either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. Their baseline health data is collected throughout the series to monitor progress.

The ambitious project builds on the 2010 Senior Australian of the Year’s ongoing efforts to improve food and dining in the sector. In 2014, she established the Maggie Beer Foundation with the belief that seasonal food that gives pleasure and goodness is the key to the wellbeing of residents in aged care.

Educating and sharing the knowledge and skills necessary to effect meaningful change among the cooks and chefs in aged care has been the cornerstone of her programs. Last year, she launched a $5 million federal government-funded free training program to give every chef and cook working in the sector a chance to develop their culinary skills and improve food, nutrition and the dining experience for older people.

In the three-part series, Beer works closely with the nursing home’s resident chef, Sasanka ‘Sas’, to make change.

Her first taste test of the nursing home’s food leaves her underwhelmed and acutely aware of the challenge ahead.

But she’s up for the fight, inviting Aged Care Minister Anika Wells to lunch in four months’ time to smell, feel, taste, and see what is possible.

“The pressure is now on,” says Beer.

“The Minister will be here in four months to see the outcome of our experiment, an outcome that could change the lives of all Australians in aged care, and I’m about to find out just how much work we’ve got to do.”

Aside from developing an entirely new, delicious, and nutritious menu for residents, Beer also must convince leadership and management to get on board her vision. It’s far from easy but she quickly manages to convince CEO Chris Roberts to consider upping the daily food budget per resident per day from $11 (below the average) to $14.

“We work for the residents, Maggie. We want to make sure that all the residents are happy. It is a learning collaboration with you and your teams. Yes, I think we can do it together,” he says, in response to her grand plans.

Nevertheless, resistance to change becomes clear. Over to you, Maggie.

“With 78% of residents malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, it’s clear things need to change. Unless I can win over the leadership team, I’m afraid my big mission will fail.”

Maggie Beer’s Big Mission screens on the ABC on Tuesday at 8.30pm, and on iview.

4 Responses

  1. I am an ex hospital cook , I love what Maggie is doing . We had a similar project in our hospital. It didn’t work as the government budgeted down to the last cent. The food was terrible, I used to be embarrassed at what food went to the patients. This was 25 years ago. A friend of mine was a patient for 9 months , he was 91 ,the food was worse than before, he couldn’t eat the food, I think he had malnutrition. I complained to management , they said there was nothing they could do. Keep the good work up Maggie, I love you. Ps. The actual nursing was good.

  2. Well done Maggie Beer for seeing the problems and attempting to rectify them.

    What a BIG MISSION it will be. But Maggie has an end in her sights – so look out! The statistics are VERY alarming which is why this will surely push ahead.

    I am looking forward to the changes made to the gardens, courtyard, balcony & dining room ambience as well as the herb & vegetable gardens. I am 73 & my husband is 77 and, until we absolutely need to, we would like to continue living as we do which is travelling in a caravan for six months and living in s.e.Qld for six months. We don’t have a house. I love my garden and the peace and quiet. I don’t want to be in a care home but all things change and a stroke or something similar could easily stop what we do.

  3. As a retired nurse I am thrilled to see you on your Mission Maggie.
    Everybody including management and the government knows what poor standards they have but do nothing.
    PLEASE don’t give up or back down, we need more people like you and hopefully you will make the difference needed to start the ball rolling.
    I was disappointed to see the staff being the only taste testers, the residents should be included, like with the garden.
    I wish I could have been a part of this.
    Keep up the good work Maggie

  4. The members of the executive were very guarded by their responses to the taste test.
    The CEO ‘s comment “ This tastes like the food we have at home,” . gives one the opinion that they have never eaten decent food. Then they had the hide to comment that the
    upmarket version of the dish was marginally better.
    I visited a friend in a care facility recently and could not discern what the main lunch dish was. There were a few yellow worms amongst a blob of lumps of mince.
    The care facility had been taken over by another company and instantly the quality of the food and menu changed for the worst.
    Maggie, you have a Big Job ahead of you.
    One suggestion is …..( a must do for “All Aged Care Facilities “ Carry out an independent survey of “each home care resident with family member /members )” , commenting on their experience of the food they have to eat. This should be the responsibility of all care facilities.
    Perhaps Maggie at the end of it all Aged care facilities Must gain a food quality and nutrition accreditation, as part of their operating permit., before they are given the right to operate.
    Maggie Beer we al want you to succeed in your mission.

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