Monday, 24 December 2012

Hospital food: a review

I'm fortunate enough to have avoided staying in hospital for most of my life. I ended up there once, aged about 13, with suspected appendicitis. I was nil-by-mouth just in case, my family were away, and the hospital forgot to feed me for three days.

I now realise this was a lucky escape. Last week I was in the Royal Infirmary for a couple of days, and anything that involved the staff was admirable in every way. The doctors and nurses were spectacular, keeping everyone comforted, comfortable and (very important) informed as to what was going on. They were supportive and kind from walking in the door to walking out of it. Really, I saw absolutely none of the alleged compassion deficit in the NHS, not a hint of it.

All the non-clinical services supplied by Balfour Beatty (a 50% shareholder in Consort Healthcare, the company contracted to build the RI in 1998) were breathtakingly capitalist, transparently designed to squeeze as much money out of their unfortunately captive audience as possible. I was against PFI for providing public services before my short stay, but now I believe it is, in its current guise, failing us all. I'm aware that all the things I noticed in just a couple of days are pretty much standard throughout hospitals in the UK, which makes them even more perfidious. I'm also aware that there are complex financial reasons (we're all broke) behind the decision to finance major public services in this way, but when it comes to the food IT IS JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

The other charges, while dreadful, can perhaps come down to a bottom line of "we just can't afford anything else". Family struggling to visit because it costs £7 to park for a day, or £3.30 to park for visiting hours twice a day. My husband easily racked up £20 in five or six visits. There's the bedside 'entertainment system' (though with only 50 films advertised, I'm not sure how entertaining it really is) that charges you to watch TV, films, and even to call people. Thank god the blindest of eyes was turned when we all ignored the signs above our beds instructing us to use mobiles in the designated areas, or I wouldn't even have been able to call my mum (because I am stubborn, and REFUSE to pay to call my mum when in hospital).

But, Balfour Beatty, there is absolutely no excuse for the food that came my way. Rice Crispies (the only time I ate a whole portion of something); cheap white bread; damp tuna sandwiches in a plastic box that made garage sarnies look posh, lacking even lettuce to freshen them up. A finger of 'lasagne' with no white sauce, shamefacedly hiding washed out veg between its layers of chewy pasta, so salty I couldn't finish even my small portion. No sides of salad or veg, ever. Fake ice cream, the type that doesn't melt for a suspiciously long time. Harsh concentrated orange juice, and porridge so nasty I managed three spoonfuls - made with water and salt, from the taste. 'Boeuf bourguignon' that I only managed two forks of, with extraordinary flavour that certainly didn't come from a cow, tomatoes, stock, wine or herbs. I ate my three potato croquettes, which were floury and processed.

Balfour Beatty, these people are UNWELL. I'm greedy, and I couldn't eat this stuff. I had a caring husband bringing me Pret salads, but what about the three other people in my ward who didn't have family who could rush food to them on a daily basis? What about the people who may not even mind food of this standard, who don't eat well normally, but who miss out on the one time of their lives when governments, normally so vocal on how we should eat, could actually dictate decent food to improve our health? This should be a chance not only to impress people who expect good food, but to introduce proper food to that captive audience. Though by the looks of this Qype page, the food's not currently keeping anyone happy.

There's a time and a place for saving money, and it's not by scrimping a couple of pence by making porridge with water. Why Muller Light yoghurts? They're pricy, sugary and full of crap. If you're making lasagne anyway, even if you then ship in over in plastic cartons, why not make it properly? It doesn't have to be this way. Just last month, Mike Duckett won the Derek Cooper award at the Radio 4 Food and Farming ceremony, for making huge strides in serving not just ok food (as would have been a huge improvement) but really good food, the kind of food you'd lovingly create for your own sick child. The Radio 4 page describes him as:

"Former head of catering at the Royal Brompton hospital where every meal is cooked on the premises using fresh, local ingredients, and thirty per cent of the food is organic or locally sourced, with organic meats appearing on the menu at least once a week. Mike Duckett has been leading the way in improving the quality of public catering across the UK, and his work is followed by governments around Europe, The nomination said, “Mike's work connects many small producers around the UK by supplying those who care about food and nutrition standards, and those staff, families and ill people who need to eat the food in hospitals.”

It's just food. This hospital gives people new hearts, helps them walk again, delivers babies, fits new limbs, cleans people's blood and somehow finds the time to comfort hundreds of thousands of patients a year. A decent bowl of porridge is surely not too difficult?


  1. I agree when I had my son at the Royal - I have type 1 diabetes and the third night my blood sugars dropped the nurse had to rummage through my locker for some food/sugar drink as the kitchens where closed, and locked until the next morning

    1. That's mad. Of all the times in our lives we need the best food, it's crazy that it's not a central structure of all hospitals. For a morale boost, apart from anything else - meal times should be something to look forward to.