It’s An Emergency! The Food In Britain’s NHS Hospitals:

It’s about 8 am in the ward. The nurses are bustling around, preparing the medication to be administered to their patients, most of whom are now awake. The familiar rattle of the approaching breakfast trolley doesn’t, however, engender any great sense of anticipation. Those patients watching the morning news programmes on their bedside TVs continue to do so. When invited to make a choice between the available cereals, there’s very little response. Why? If they select the rice crispies, it’s piled high in their bowls with very little milk added. The porridge looks and tastes like inedible mush. The toast resembles burnt pieces of plastic. The tea is very definitely not Twinings English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

Any patient who does manage to force some of this down their throat has to digest it fairly quickly, as by noon the trolley will be back with lunch. The meals have been selected in advance from the menu provided, but that doesn’t make them any more appetising. Some hospitals, such as the Royal Free in Hampstead, North London, say they offer flexible meal times, namely 7.30 am – 9.30 am (breakfast), noon – 1pm (lunch) and 5.45 pm – 7 pm (supper). This makes evident sense, as people have very different eating habits. Many NHS hospitals, however, appear to have very rigid schedules and hence insist on their patients being served their food at fixed prescribed intervals, irrespective of whether they are hungry or would prefer to wait a while longer.

The 77-year-old cookery writer and restaurateur, Prue Leith, in an article for The Guardian, has described hospital food as a “ recipe for disaster”. Patients, she declares, deserve so much better than plastic containers filled with sweaty cheese, dabs of margarine and unidentifiable grey slop. In her view, it’s no surprise at all that “80,00 hospital meals are left uneaten every day and two-thirds of staff admit they would not themselves eat what they serve up to patients. You can’t blame either patients or staff: most hospital food is a disgrace”. Indeed, she’s concluded that hospitals have an incentive to provide bad food, that if it’s really horrible, the patients will not ask for it again, less will need to be prepared and the catering bill will go down: “If the grub were better, more people would eat it and the catering costs would rise”.

Due to the long-term outsourcing contracts which many hospitals have signed and can’t now get out of, Leith points out, very few of their kitchen actually cook any food, at least for the patients. A company based hundreds of miles away prepares, for example “ a dish with the cheapest imported chicken, minced, pelleted and freeze-dried, then topped with a packet sauce made of who knows what. It’s cooked, refrozen in portions, then delivered to the hospital to be “regenerated” (warmed up) with boiled frozen vegetables. Finally, it’s kept warm on a trolley before being plonked in front of the unfortunate patient. No wonder it’s disgusting”.

Leith recommends a much smaller range of healthy, filling options, such as vegetable soup, fishcakes with chilli chutney, chicken and leek pie or vegetarian curry and the possibility of ordering a tempting salad or scrambled egg on toast for patients not ready for a full meal. Above all, everything should be cooked fresh and on the spot, perhaps even on the ward itself to cater for patients who cannot eat at scheduled mealtimes: “If anyone thinks this is unaffordable, they should look at current waste rates, which are running at 70% in some hospitals”.

The food journalist, Bee Wilson, has commented in The Telegraph that “our health service has largely lost any sense that food is medicine”. In schools and prisons, she notes, the lunches may not always be delicious, but they must abide by certain basic nutritional requirements: “Yet in hospitals – places where, in theory, we go to get well – meals are still not governed by legal standards”. She quotes the depiction by Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist at Croydon University Hospital, of hospital food as constituting a “toxic environment”.

This same theme was the main feature of an article on 20th April by the New Statesman columnist, Felcity Cloake, captioned “Why NHS catering needs a revolution”. Plate after plate of disappointment, she wrote, is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb. but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process: “Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay”.

A survey on London hospitals conducted by the Campaign For Better Hospital Food has revealed that only 30% cook fresh food on-site for their patients but 77% do so for their staff, which has prompted the indignant headline in The Telegraph that “doctors and nurses eat better than sick patients”. Furthermore, that 17% serve food to the patients in ready meal packaging and 20% don’t provide them with a hot dish if they miss the mealtime. Recently released official data indicates that £560 million was spent on 144 million hospital patient breakfasts, lunches and dinners in 2016/17 – which equals an expenditure of about £3.68 on each meal.

Filed under: Healthcare | Posted on July 2nd, 2018 by Colin D Gordon

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