11 Oct 2011

Untouched: the hospital food that goes to waste

The NHS is spending more than £22m a year on hospital meals that simply get thrown away.

Hospital food (reuters)

Figures gathered from NHS trusts across England show that one in 12 meals is sent back untouched – nine million meals every year. And in seven trusts, 20 per cent or more meals get returned uneaten.

The worst offender was Ipswich Hospital NHS trust, with almost a third of all meals wasted, while in Buckinghamshire, Oxford and Barnet less than 1 per cent ended up in the bin.

Although the amount of money spent on patients’ food varies widely, it does not seem to have much impact on how much actually gets eaten. Ipswich, for example, spends £17.20 per patient, per day – far higher than many other trusts.

Watchdog investigation

The Care Quality Commission, which is due to publish a report later this week on nutrition for elderly people, has investigated 100 hospitals, and found cause for concern in almost half of them. Complaints included trays being cleared before patients had a chance to eat, and the failure to set aside a dedicated mealtime where staff could devote time to helping patients having difficulty with their food.

Another trust with high wastage, the University Hospital of South Manchester, said its problem had been over-ordering, in order to create more choice on the menu – a problem which they said had now been remedied.

Political challenge

The Health Minister Simon Burns said: “All hospitals should also make sure that every patient gets the help they need to eat properly, and offer good quality nutritious food. This is an essential part of hospital care.”

All hospitals should… offer good quality, nutritious food. Simon Burns, Health Minister

But the challenge of improving hospital food has eluded successive governments. A report last year by Sustain found that 17 separate voluntary schemes since the year 2000 had failed to have any impact, including the £40m Better Food Programme pioneered by the television host Lloyd Grossman.

Celebrity chefs

A number of celebrity chefs are getting involved, including the three Michelin-starred Heston Blumenthal, who is now half way into a three-year project with the NHS and Reading University. He says he is trying to improve the flavour of hospital food, as well as the dining environment.

And most recently, Saturday Kitchen host James Martin has worked with Scarborough General Hospital, which spends less than £3.50 per patient per day on food. He said he had taken up the challenge after seeing his grandmother wasting away during the final months of her life in hospital.

What these latest figures reveal, though, is that it is not just food quality that matters, but setting aside enough time, and enough staff to make sure that every patient, especially older people, gets the support and nutrition he or she needs.