Most people believe that hospital food is poor quality - even those with no experience of it themselves, and regardless of whether their criticisms are fair in individual cases. Three of the complaints we hear most often from patients is that hospital food is poor quality, ill-suited to their needs, e.g. dairy intolerant patients being served milk, and unhealthy.
These concerns are all well-founded, particularly those about the nutritional value of hospital food. Last year, our campaign established that hospital food served to patients in England is likely to be more unhealthy (i.e. contains more salt, sugar and saturated fat) than food served at fast-food restaurants like McDonalds.
This culture of unhealthy eating in the NHS also extends to food sold to staff and visitors on hospital premises where vending machines, ‘snack' trolleys taken to the wards and many on-site shops often only sell junk food and sugary drinks. It should not take a campaign to demonstrate that serving unhealthy in hospital is wrong, especially when diet-related ill health is costing the NHS millions of pounds every year.
For the last twenty years, and in response to the public and media criticism of hospital food, the government has launched a plethora of guidance intended to improve the standard of patient meals, costing the taxpayer more than £54 million in the process. This guidance has been largely ignored, or adopted only for a short time, because it was not made mandatory.
It is staggering that this is the case when you consider that most food served in the UK's public sector is required to meet mandatory nutritional and quality standards, including school food, and food served in government departments, prisons, and Scottish and Welsh hospitals.
Some hospitals in England are preparing and cooking fantastic meals but the same high standards aren't being achieved everywhere, proving that just because some hospitals are getting it right, it doesn't mean that the rest will follow. History has taught us best practice does not spread by itself.
The Campaign for Better Hospital Food believes that the only way to make sure that all patient meals are high quality, healthy and made to the best standards of production is for the government to set mandatory standards for all hospital food in England. Setting standards for school food has been hugely successful in revolutionising the quality of school meals. It also laid the foundations for the injection of more money into school catering, giving caterers more time and greater freedom to cook meals to the best of their ability.
Mandatory standards for hospital food could achieve brilliant changes. For example, setting standards could result in hospitals serving more fresh seasonal ingredients which have been grown using less oil and water and without damaging soil and biodiversity, more produce from the best British farmers and only fish which is certified to be sustainable. This would drive up quality standards but also ensure that taxpayers' money is spent on hospital food which does good - for our health, for the environment, for our economy, and for animal welfare, to name but a few - rather than harm.
Alex Jackson is Co-ordinator of the Campaign for Better Hospital Food which is calling on the Westminster government to set mandatory standards for hospital food in England.