Taking the Pulse of Hospital Food

By : Sofia Parente and Katherine Button
Apr 5, 2017
Category :Policy Food service Health 

A new survey of hospital food shows that whilst there is some fantastic work going on that should be celebrated, many hospitals are still falling short when it comes to serving food that is healthy and sustainable for patients, staff and visitors.

The new report by Sustain’s Campaign for Better Hospital Food shares the results of research into NHS hospital food standards. The 30 participating acute hospitals are all based in London. However the questions are of nationwide significance and reflect other UK wide surveys, and the results go some way to understand the picture and inform decision at the national level.

Key findings

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% of hospitals cook all food fresh on-site for staff, this falls to only 30% for patients.

Only 40% 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% of hospitals don’t offer staff fridge space to store food.

60% of Trusts surveyed reported their NHS Trust had a food and drink strategy (a requirement in the NHS Standard Contracts), but only 25% 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.

The full report is available for download.  

Sofia Parente (Campaign coordinator, Sustainable Food Cities) and Katherine Button (Campaign coordinator, Campaign for Better Hospital Food) at Sustain