Court awards compensation for 'disgraceful' hospital food

Will this make hospital caterers take note?


I can’t help feeling that some gripes against hospital food aren’t merited; Patients constantly complain – then order a fast food  take-away pizza or curry. Frankly, I don’t see the difference.

However, Michael Cooper, a patient at Southampton General Hospital, thought  their food, provided by caterers Medirest, was so awful he sued.  And a court has awarded him £200 for food he said he had to buy to supplement what he was given, but couldn’t eat.

In hospital for a knee operation, Mr. Cooper didn’t like eating the microwaved food, so instead struggled to the canteen for his three meals a day.  In court, he said the food provided ‘was not fit for pigs’, and sued for reimbursement of £200 he had paid out in the canteen.

The court agreed with him, and awarded him the £200.  Not much out of Medirest’s £17 million five-year contract with the hospital though.

Dispatches highlighted hospital food

So is Mr. Cooper’s experience an isolated one?  Sadly not.

A recent Dispatches TV programme highlighted some of the most horrible looking meals I have ever seen – in fact at times I was using the remote control to switch off what was on the screen  Uggggh! But – this same food is supplied by caterers such as Sodexo and ISS across the hospital system in Britain.

To save money, the major part of our hospital meals are made in massive kitchens based in industrial estates such as one in South Wales, then trucked across the country to be served next day.  Not many patients are lucky enough to be treated at the Royal Brompton (featured and congratulated in Dispatches) where their kitchens are IN the hospital.

Also, although the Brompton has a budget of £4 per day per patient, I am sure the majority of hospitals’ allocate less.  I write about mass catering, and know that prison budgets often allocate more per head for food, than do hospitals.  Sodexo, the company pilloried in the Dispatches programme, said that they can be given less per head for their budget – but deal with so many different hospitals that they couldn’t give me an overall figure.

But think about it.  Would you like to feed someone on £4 a day – and make sure the meals contained all the nutritents necessary? And on top, pay for the refrigerated lorries and fuel to transport the meal across the country?  Very sadly, instead of starting a round-table discussion between the journalist and other patients’ representatives, Sodexo and hospital finance departments, the Nuffield Orthopeadic Centre NHS hospital featured has hidden behind ‘Management speak’ in its reply, with a pathetic statement that doesn’t address one issue highlighted in the Dispatches programme.

We all know that many hospital Administrators are paid more than the Prime Minister – so it’s about time they actually did something, met patients (do any of them know what we look like?) and addressed the issue of hospital food.  The problems won’t go away, so they had better start doing something.

Food has been mass cooked off-site and trucked in to hospitals for many years – and for years patients have been eating the junk these lorries deliver. But how many complain? Yes, hospital websites are full of grumbles, but have any of those posting complaints actually taken the time to TALK to admin staff in hospitals and voice their complaints?  Not many, I am sure.  Mind you, when you try to talk to anyone in Admin you are fobbed off with the PALS staff – who are not administrators.

DON’T complain to Nurses

What can YOU do about complaining?  Are you going to the right people, or just finding the nearest nurse?  It is NOTHING to do with nurses – the fact that they wouldn’t eat the food themselves matters not, especially when they see patients actually eat the meals.  Yes, there is a lot left on the tray, but there is no ‘procedure’ to report this – and Sister (if she is around in the ward) wouldn’t give a monkeys, knowing the hospital has such a low food budget, that provided food doesn’t give patients salmonella poisoning, they couldn’t care less.

Dishing Up

And complaining to the staff that serve the food is useless.  They are either volunteers, or paid the lowest wage possible.  Plugging in the food trolleys X minutes/hours before meal service is all they are paid to do.

When Air Malta wanted to improve passenger satisfaction with their food, they bought in a chef from The Ritz Hotel, who showed cabin crew how to place food attractively on a plate.  You would be surprised how much ‘plating’ food properly can increase satisfaction, and customer satisfaction soared at Air Malta.  All it takes is a little TLC, but somehow I can’t see the NHS doing this!

Red Trays

Then we have the appalling situation that elderly patients often aren’t fed.  Starvation isn’t deliberate, but when my mother was in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital with a broken arm I discovered food was plonked at the end of her bed – and taken away each time uneaten, as she couldn’t reach it, and no-one helped her.  I had to go in three times a day to feed her.  When she was out I contacted Age Concern to ask them to bring in their RED TRAY system (no tray is allowed to be taken away with food still on it, without Sister’s say-so).

Chelsea and Westminster don’t like to be dictated to by patients;  they eventually caved in but with BLUE trays! However, when I phoned chief Executive’s office three times to see if system was in place, they knew nothing about this. It was left to PALS to confirm that the system is working.  So if the CEO doesn’t know what happens in a hospital over food, what chance has a lowly HCA (Healthcare Assistant) got on the minimum wage?

It was Patient Power that got this system installed – so if you find Gran is left hungry – get Age Concern on your side, and help them to put pressure on hospitals.

Saving Money

One way where hospitals save money is to lump catering contracts together.  Instead of ordering Halal meat as an extra, they will specify all meat has to be halal.  This is fine for those who want this type of meat slaughtered in the special way, but if you are like me, and prefer your meat slaughtered in the traditional way, you lump it or leave it.

Fresh salads would be lovely, but again it is cheaper to serve our Vitamin C ration using vegetables  needing a spin dryer to get water out (as Mark Sparrow said).  Or as tinned baked beans (dubious vitamin content – but popular), rather than serve   fresh and wholesome salads that need trained care to ensure they remain fresh.

And it is certainly easier to slap a slab of processed cheese between two slices of white plastic  and wrap it it in cling film,

rather than serve proper bread and cheese, with a bit of crunchy salad – yummy!

What can you and your friends do?

Every ward has to have a fridge for patients’ food.  Ward sisters will try and deny this, knowing that the fridges are full of food bought in by nurses, but look around and you should find one.

I remember being shown around the lovely little Gordon Hospital before an operation, and Sister saying, “that’s the patients’ fridge”, pointing to a massive ceiling-high monster.

“For our medicine?” I asked innocently?  “Good heavens no – for their Champagne” said sister, throwing open the double doors to show a well stocked cellar.  Remember – the Gordon was the nearest hospital to the House of Commons.

Once you have found the patients’ fridge, block off a shelf with your labels, and stock it with salads, fruit etc.  which you can take out and use for nutritious and tasty meals.  Simples.

Loyd Grossman

You might remember Loyd Grossman was bought in to try and improve NHS food, but failed.  According to him, “NHS patients are forced to suffer unnecessarily” because of a lack of political willpower to improve hospital food.  Grossman was appointed in 2000 to head up a £40 million project to improve the quality of hospital catering, but quit in frustration after five years over what he saw as a “prejudice against common sense”, telling Channel 4’s Dispatches: “Someone at the top has got to take the issue of food seriously or else patients will continue to suffer unnecessarily.”

He continued: “I don’t think anything made me snap. It was really just an accumulation of five years of frustration, knowing that it should be done, knowing that it could be done, yet looking all around me and finding all sorts of impediments.”

Every time he made a suggestion about improving hospital catering the response would be that it was “not evidence based”, adding: “There was kind of a prejudice against common sense, the kind of common sense that’s been part of patient care since Hippocrates.

“It seemed so obvious and it still seems so obvious that if you give patients better food they will be happier, they will heal more quickly.”  “The system of political control is very difficult. During the time that I was working with the NHS, I reported to five different ministers. Every time a new minister arrives, there’s a new mountain to climb”.

He said that his mantra “that was never listened to” was “don’t tell me you have a good hospital unless you have good food”.

Evidence base

One of the best caterers I ever worked with was Nevvar Hickmet.  He bought the Grand Hotel, Birmingham, which had closed after its kitchens served suspect food.  At the re-opening Banquet for 500 people, all dressed up in my glad rags and jools, he said we would stand by the pig swill bins, “if you can see the bottom of the bins at the end of the meal, you will know they enjoyed the food”.  And he was right.

So can I suggest that the Nuffield Hospital, Sodexho, Mark and myself (I would love to be involved) stand by the rubbish bins one day, and watch what goes in to them?  That would be the surest way of getting an accurate picture of what patients like to eat – and what not.  And provide ‘evidence base’ galore.

Then take it from there – with all the ‘evidence base’ that tin-pot administrators, Ministers, etc. would need.  Let’s get on with it, and stop moaning.

Bon appetit!

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