“The story of the failure to provide tasty, healthy food in British hospitals is a result of an indefensible failure by those in charge of hospitals to understand the basic importance of good food to good health.”
That is according to First Aid for Hospital Food, the hard-hitting report published last year by the Soil Association.
To back this up, every independent survey of hospital food since 1963 has concluded that NHS food is neither appetising nor nutritious.
At an event at the Royal Brompton in 2008, the Prince of Wales encouraged NHS chief executives to improve the quality of hospital food, saying: “We are what we eat… we go into hospital to get well, so what we eat must help, not hinder, that process.”
Just before Christmas, some of us who responded to this challenge attended a meeting with the prince at Clarence House for a roundtable discussion and celebration of the progress that has been made since this challenge was set.
Despite numerous attempts over the years to improve the quality and image of such a vital frontline service, the reputation of hospital food remains poor. However, the 14 pioneering trusts present at Clarence House are leading by example by providing patients and staff with healthier and more environmentally sustainable choices.
These trusts, which include specialist hospitals such as the Royal Brompton and Nottingham University Hospitals, mental health organisations like Sussex and South Essex Partnership trusts, and large integrated care providers like Lothian in Scotland and us here at Durham and Darlington, are sourcing local produce in a drive to make the everyday experience of patients better.
The emphasis is on sourcing local, seasonal, organic food, cutting food miles, boosting local economies and in many cases saving significant amounts of money.
Good quality food is the cornerstone of good health. Recent statistics show that up to 40 per cent of adults and 15 per cent of children admitted to hospital show signs of malnutrition. Experts in the field point out that just lowering the malnutrition rate by 10 per cent could save the NHS £1.3bn.
Further evidence suggests that good nutrition not only helps patients recover faster, but can also relieve the symptoms of some diseases, and also improve the effectiveness of some medications.
The NHS operating framework 2012-13 puts patient experience at the top of everyone’s agenda. So what better way is there to improve the quality of life for patients in hospital, care homes and community, than to focus on good food?
One thing you can do immediately is to sign up to achieving the Food for Life catering mark. Developed by the Soil Association, it is an independently audited, voluntary standard that allows catering services to make step changes towards increasing the use of locally sourced fresh produce.
Increased costs are often cited as the reason so few institutions are pursuing these policies vigorously but it’s a myth that serving up good-quality food costs the earth.
Comparative data shows that hospitals spending half as much as the highest spenders are often able to provide better quality food.
Here in County Durham and Darlington we provide food daily on an industrial scale at a cost of £2.20 per patient per day. This is one of the cheapest rates in the country yet we are still able to provide our patients with meat, milk, yoghurt and morning goods, sourced from local suppliers.
Many hospitals still run complicated three-weekly menu cycles which lack flexibility and lead to significant waste. It is estimated that in the NHS, £144m worth of food is wasted every year and national benchmarking shows that food waste rates in some hospitals run at 45 per cent. We provide a simple weekly menu augmented by à la carte choices that is more responsive to our patients’ needs. Our food waste rates run at 5 per cent.
Moreover, this year we will spend £10m buying locally, which is vitally important to the economy here in the North East. We can achieve this because we have high-quality leadership in our catering and procurement teams and this is replicated in the other institutions involved. These leaders bring commitment and skill to delivering great catering services while managing on very tight budgets and focusing on working with local farmers and businesses.
So go for it, go local, go green, go to your community and play your part in making British hospital food the best in the world.