The Mark of good food in hospitals

The Soil Association provides an update on the work it has done to improve food through its Food for Life Catering Mark, with a specific focus on its work with the NHS and healthcare sector.

In a move to improve staff health and well‑being, NHS England has recently announced a new national Commissioning for Quality and Innovation (CQUIN), ‘NHS staff health and well-being’, which came into force as of 1 April 2016. The Soil Association’s Food For Life Catering Mark is welcoming this news as it supports the good work that they have been doing over the past six years to improve staff and visitor food in hospitals.

Healthier food for NHS staff, visitors and patients (with a retail focus) is a key part of the new CQUIN, as targets are set and funds will depend on achieving a number of new approaches. NHS trusts will be expected to achieve a step-change in the health of the food offered on their premises in 2016/17, including the banning of price promotions on sugary drinks and foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). Successful achievement of these goals will unlock finance for trusts; a huge and welcome motivator to take action.

Part of the new CQUIN will also require healthy options to be available at any point including for those staff working night shifts. The Catering Mark can offer guidance in how to improve food served in hospitals, including how to find suitable alternatives. On delivering these outcomes, CQUIN funds will be paid to NHS trusts for compliance to the requirements. The Soil Association’s Food for Life programme is committed to ensuring that the food offering in hospitals reflects a hospitals’ position as a healthy place so has developed a series of support packages with the Food for Life Hospital Leaders team and the Catering Mark to support and exceed achievement of the new CQUIN requirements.

The CQUIN also complements the aims of the Food for Life Catering Mark and current holders of the award will find themselves well informed to take advantage of this opportunity. But for those still to achieve the award, what exactly is the Catering Mark and why is it so important?

Food for Life Catering Mark
Brought to the fore by Jamie Oliver and his school dinners, the Catering Mark recently celebrated over 1.5 million meals eaten in schools, nurseries, workplaces and hospitals every work day. Half of all English primary schools now hold a Catering Mark and the revolution has spread to healthcare catering too.

The Food for Life Catering Mark is an independent award that assesses catering in public places against a set of standards developed to help improve the quality of food where people don’t often have a choice. The award provides an independent guarantee that meals are freshly prepared, include local seasonal produce, and are free from undesirable ingredients such as trans fats. All meat achieves UK animal welfare standards, and only free-range eggs are used.

Healthy places are drastically in need of healthier food. The Catering Mark is already in hospitals across the country, certifying the staff, visitor and patient food to bronze, silver or gold standard. Better hospital meals can go a long way to supporting patient health and recovery and increasing customer satisfaction. It’s not just catering for patients either – NHS employees are even more at risk, with 25 per cent of staff obese and diet‑related illness costing £5.8 billion every year.

Who does it apply to?
There are now over 40 hospital sites in the UK who have stepped up to achieve a Catering Mark, whether for their staff restaurant or for patient feeding.

This work has been achieved in partnership with Trusts and their caterers. One food service provider, ISS Healthcare, have committed to bring all of the sites they cater for to Catering Mark standard, the last is due to be awarded in summer 2016.

Achieving a Catering Mark is no mean feat and takes commitment from management right through to catering and serving staff. Menus will often be changed to incorporate more seasonal ingredients, fresh produce will need to be sourced, suppliers consulted and more meals prepared freshly by trained staff.

Achieving a Catering Mark
To help caterers find more suitable ingredients, Soil Association Certification has set up the Catering Mark Supplier Scheme, giving caterers more options for sourcing local fresh produce, or farm assured meat.

For example, Acorn Dairies supply around 3,500 litres of organic milk to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle direct from the dairy – great for local food and good for people too, as a recent report by Newcastle University, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic milk contains around 50 per cent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk.

Another Catering Mark Supplier Scheme member, Yearsleys, supply Red Tractor assured meat, sustainable fish and fresh produce to a range of hospital caterers across the country. They’ve been part of the Supplier Scheme for just over a year and now supply around 150 hospitals, helping healthcare caterers to improve the sourcing and provenance of their ingredients. This supports local economies and through the Catering Mark Supplier Scheme, provides caterers with the reassurance that their food is free from undesirable additives (such as trans fats or aspartame) – crucial to achieving a Catering Mark.

Yearsley’s said: “Our customers are always very pleased to hear that we are members of the Catering Mark Supplier Scheme and that we can help them improve their food sourcing practices and achieve the Catering Mark. Its great to know that we are helping to improve the food served in hospitals and supporting British producers at the same time.”

Once the catering team has decided to apply for the award and made changes, an inspector from the Soil Association will visit and spend time checking the site to ensure their ingredients comply with the standards. Providing there are no issues, the Catering Mark will then be awarded. Inspection is annual so hospitals need to make sure they keep up the good work.

Many hospitals choose to celebrate the award with a presentation, which helps share the good news with more staff and visitors and generate positive publicity. Across the country hospital Catering Mark celebrations are being reported in local papers and industry publications. This recognition is a welcome change from negative healthcare news stories papering the press.

North Bristol NHS Trust was one of the first hospital restaurants to achieve the Catering Mark Silver award. The trust has an Environmental Policy which commits them to monitoring and sourcing local, organic, seasonal and fairly traded food. With help from the Soil Association’s Catering Mark team, the team at North Bristol were able to find suitable local, sustainable suppliers and fulfil their environmental aims.

Gary Wilkins, head of catering at North Bristol NHS Trust, said: “The Catering Mark is something tangible to show patients, visitors and other interested parties just how important providing improved patient meals is for us here at North Bristol NHS Trust. But it’s not just the patients that benefit, we feel we are really contributing to the local economy and feeding back into our community.”

The quality of food at Southmead hospital is often reported by patients; a recent patient satisfaction survey scored 95.1 per cent for food. Over 93 per cent of dishes are prepared from local ingredients, freshly on site without controversial or undesirable additives, GM and artificial trans fats, and ingredients that are farm assured and better for animal welfare.

Support from the Catering Mark
The effects of the Catering Mark stretch further, to employees and the local community. Staff training is emphasised as part of the scheme, giving employees skills that they might otherwise not have. They can take these skills and satisfaction back to their homes, helping to raise awareness of the value of cooking and good food in the community.

The Catering Mark supports British farmers and the wider economy by encouraging the use of ingredients produced in the UK – research shows a return on social investment of over £3 for every £1 spent.

The standards set by the Catering Mark are also recognised in key policy at government level. The Food for Life Catering Mark is cited in the government’s Plan for Public Procurement, which addresses wider aspects of quality within food and catering – such as ethical, environmental and social considerations. Based on the Government Buying Standards for food and nutrition, the Plan seeks to achieve consistent standards for all food procured by central government departments, as well as providing best practice recommendations for food providers and procurers. Catering Mark holders are recognised within the Plan as being well‑placed to score good or excellent against the Plan’s ‘Balanced Scorecard’ criteria.

The economy has also benefited from the take up of the Catering Mark. There is now over £40 million spent on Red Tractor assured meats by Catering Mark holders per year, increasing from £23 million in 2014. In addition, £9 million is spent on organic, £5 million on MSC and £4.7 million on RSPCA assured products through the scheme.

The road to better hospital food is a long one. But those who chose to take steps to improve their food will certainly not be alone. The rewards are there too for those who strive to meet the challenge.

The Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark provides an independent endorsement that food providers are taking steps to improve the food they serve, using fresh ingredients which are free from undesirable additives and trans fats, are better for animal welfare, and comply with national nutrition standards.

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