Taking the Pulse of Hospital Food

For the first time the Campaign for Better Hospital Food has undertaken an in-depth report into the current state of hospital food in NHS England, using London as a test case for the rest of the country

Thanks to the Taking the Pulse of Hospital Food report, Sustain’s Campaign for Better Hospital Food has detailed data on the food served up in London’s hospitals that shows half of hospitals are failing to meet basic food standards, and nearly two thirds failing to cook fresh food for their patients. The report results, which were released on NHS Sustainability Day, showed that many hospitals are struggling to serve and sell freshly prepared, healthy and ethically sourced food for patients, staff and hospital visitors.

The general quality of food across most London acute hospitals is variable, with most hospitals performing well in some areas and poorly in others. Only half are compliant with all five hospital food standards required in the NHS Standard Contract for hospitals. Whilst 77 per cent of hospitals cook all food fresh on-site for staff, this falls to only 30 per cent for patients.

Only 40 per cent of hospitals were offering 24-hour access to healthy food for staff when the survey closed in December 2016. This makes healthy eating for staff challenging given that vending machines and shops in the vast majority of hospitals sell a majority of unhealthy food and 23 per cent of hospitals don’t offer staff fridge space to store food.

Additionally, 60 per cent of trusts surveyed reported their NHS Trust had a food and drink strategy (a requirement in the NHS Standard Contracts), but only 25 per cent covered all the required criteria. Healthy and sustainable food procurement, one key criteria in a food and drink strategy, was missing in many trusts.

Can you eat less and better meat in hospitals?
In terms of less and better meat, it is promising that a small number of hospitals have adopted a 'less and better meat' policy, three hospitals for staff food and six for patient’s food. Of these, Harefield, Hillingdon and Queen Elizabeth Hospitals had a less and better meet policy for both patient and staff food. This is a very important first step, and a sign of the direction that hospitals need to move in if they are to promote truly healthy and sustainable food.

The report verified which hospitals had external accreditations and awards since these can be helpful to encourage, verify and reward progress. Three acute hospitals from Barts Health NHS Trust (Royal London, St Bartholomew’s and Whipps Cross University Hospital) have achieved Gold Food for Life Catering Mark Award for their food. This award promotes meat free days and meat in moderation alongside higher standards of animal welfare and sourcing of some organic meat, eggs and dairy. Four hospitals achieved the Good Egg Award from Compassion in World Farming for using higher welfare eggs in hospital food. Two of those have also achieved the Good Chicken Award.

What is the Campaign for Better Hospital Food calling for?
These findings come at a key moment for catering in the NHS. With the Brexit process started, hospitals face real challenges in rising food prices and catering contract costs. Yet, unlike the situation in British schools and prisons, there are no minimum legal protections for hospital food. This means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care.

This is why the Campaign for Better Hospital Food is calling for hospital food standards to be set down in law, on the same legal basis as school food standards, to ensure hospitals must mandatorily meet minimum standards for the food served to patients, staff and visitors. These standards should be independently monitored and enforced.

Jo Ralling, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation campaign manager and supporter of the campaign, said: “The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report is a must read for all policy makers in the country. We’ve had legal food standards for schools and prisons for a decade, there’s no reason we can’t extend these same protections to hospitals. Let’s all work together to get NHS patients and staff the good healthy food they deserve.”

Prue Leith, new Bake Off presenter and hospital food champion, who wrote the foreword to the research report, said: “Hospital food has a deservedly poor reputation and NHS patients and staff deserve better. This report shows that at the moment most hospitals are not serving fresh, tasty and wholesome food so we must have legal standards, like those already in place for school food and prison food, to make sure good food is a priority in our hospitals.”

Overall, despite glowing performance across the board from some hospitals the general standard of hospital food is inconsistent and compliance with food standards is low. Therefore, the Campaign for Better Hospital Food strongly recommends that tough standards should be written into legislation, and checked with regular inspections, to make sure hospitals uphold these crucial food standards.

Katherine Button, coordinator of the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, said: “The government has failed to take seriously the dire state of hospital food for too long and now half of London hospitals are not meeting even basic food standards. Good food plays an essential role in recovery, well-being and morale, and patients and staff in NHS hospitals deserve better. The standard of food in schools and in prisons is protected by legal minimum standards and we demand the same high quality food for patients, staff and visitors eating in hospitals.”

Katharine Jenner, CASH campaign director, added: “The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s landmark report shows exactly how lax hospital food rules lead to low quality ingredients and hospital shops and restaurants chock full of foods high in salt, fat and sugar. This has to change. We must learn from the successful work to turn around school food using tough legal standards, and bring the same approach into hospitals.”

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