When Vanessa Wells joined Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospice in Arundel, West Sussex, she saw her job as a way of doing the work she loved while making a real difference to children who need hospice care and their families.

Although the hospice is based in Arundel, it covers Sussex and South East Hampshire, caring for 300 children and young adults from babies to 19 years old, both at the hospice and at home. The government provides a small percentage of the £4.6 million needed every year to provide hospice care, the rest comes from fundraising, gifts in wills, shops, the lottery and volunteering.

Vanessa’s team provides meals for the Care Team, children, families, staff and volunteers. The number of people varies from day to day. As Vanessa says “Even in ‘normal’ pre-pandemic times, there was no such thing as an ‘average’ day. I could be catering for 10 children and staff to preparing a buffet for over 100 supporters.”

The menu changes every four weeks using seasonal produce, although other options are available such as jacket potatoes and sandwiches. The children’s menu usually consists of several options such as spaghetti bolognese, macaroni cheese, cottage pie, fish pie or chicken nuggets. “This is because if the children don’t want anything that’s on the main menu, they have other choices,” adds Vanessa. “The most popular dishes are curries, roast dinners and fish and chips. We make sure the menu is as healthy as it can be, we limit how much we use the deep fat fryer and oven cook as much as possible. A salad bar and vegetables are also on offer. We’re happy to accommodate the needs of each child – if they like their fruit or vegetables cut into funky shapes, we’re more than happy to do that.”

Children often have special dietary requirements, so first thing in the morning Vanessa and her team check everyone’s records so they can cater accordingly. In some cases this may mean blending and puréeing food. “We have to make sure we get the consistency and thickness right – some children require their food at a water-like or custard consistency,” she says. “We have some children that have food that goes straight into their stomach, so it’s important we achieve the right consistency for the right child.”

One young man, who has difficulty chewing and swallowing, often requests meals such as a burger in a bun, a hotdog, chicken
nuggets and chips. “Our challenge is to blend all the components separately and reshape them to resemble the meal requested” says Vanessa.

Families can book routine respite breaks for children to stay at the hospice so that parents get a break. “One of the most magical parts about my role is feeding the children and families” says Vanessa. “This means parents can sit down, relax and eat with their children – something they don’t usually get a chance to do at home. It’s a real treat for them.”

If a child enjoys cooking, Vanessa will organise a cooking or baking activity. Pre-pandemic, Kenny Tutt, MasterChef Champion 2018 and Ambassador for the hospice, showed a group of children how to make their own pasta. After the demo, Kenny made meatballs and sauce to accompany the home-made pasta. “They were all given an apron from Kenny’s Pitch restaurant and even got a chance to hold the MasterChef trophy,” says Vanessa.