A key advocate for hospital food is calling on the government to set a minimum fixed ‘per head’ cost for hospital meals.

Philip Shelley, national chairman of the Hospital Caterers Association, is urging the government to implement fixed minimum costs to show the same type of commitment as they have for school dinners to avoid huge inconsistencies across the UK. NHS Benchmarking Data shows the mean cost of patient food per day is currently £8.97 with the lowest value at £3.

Says Mr Shelley: “Why is there such a difference in hospital food cost across the UK? I know of hospitals in parts of the UK who are spending £10-£12 per head. “Some trusts are serving soup and sandwiches for supper or lunch instead of a hot meal to save money. It may suit the trust financially but there are a lot of patients that require special diets and nutritional support for various reasons, and sandwiches are not suitable for a good number of them. We need consistency across the NHS. School meals cost the same across the board so why can’t we do the same with patients’ food? Everyone should be treated the same. There is massive financial pressure within the health service and one of the main ways to aide the patients’ recovery is nutritious food, yet this seems to be an area that can often face the cut. Every patient should get the same high quality care and choice. Why should it be different in various parts of the country?” Philip, who is the facilities manager at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset, spends less than £4 per head and believes this is a realistic and affordable amount. It can be achieved, he says, by using more seasonal produce to reduce costs and also by communicating with patients about when they normally have their main meal and what snacks they enjoy.

Says Philip: “Two main meals a day is not the aim but we should instead be allowing patients to choose their preference of main meal timing.”

NHS kitchens supporting retail outlets should be run as commercial enterprises too, he adds. “We know we have superb, committed and trained chefs but we need to recognise that we don’t sell ourselves – it has taken quite a time to create a business environment in the NHS. If we’re going to move forward then we need to do things differently. Hospital catering needs to take a commercial approach and operate a sensible profit and loss system. Meals, snacks and beverages must be sold to support stability, confidence and knowledge, and allow for reinvestment into the service for both patients and retail catering. We need to ensure that the staff and visitors are offered healthy options, so for retail we’re talking about healthy eating. I know there are hospitals in the country who operate their retail outlets at a loss but if we are to be a business, then this must change. I disagree with subsidised catering, so instead, buy differently and think about opening hours and pressures of pay. Agenda for Change has created an obstacle for business success with the enhanced pay scales for staff as very few catering outlets outside of the NHS offer enhanced pay which enables stability around pay costs and planning. If we are to plan for long-term success, our outlets need to be profitable, providing varied foods and beverages and recognising the needs of the customer.”