The operation that feeds a hospital at £9.45 a head

The Bury Free Press feature on Hospital Food''Pictured: Catering Manager Veronica Hall

The Bury Free Press feature on Hospital Food''Pictured: Catering Manager Veronica Hall

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IT was my first taste of hospital food and I was surprised.

The roast pork was tender and full of flavour, the roast potatoes perfect and the peas and carrots were far from the overcooked institutional style I expected.

The Bury Free Press feature on Hospital Food''Pictured: Patient Heather White with Matron Simon Taylor

The Bury Free Press feature on Hospital Food''Pictured: Patient Heather White with Matron Simon Taylor

But West Suffolk Hospital prides itself in the standard of its food, which a recent Patient Environment Action Team inspection rated as ‘excellent’. Most of it is prepared in-house from local produce, like this outdoor reared Norfolk pork.

Catering manager Veronica Hall says patients even send thankyou cards to her staff and figures issued last week by the NHS on what hospital trusts spend on food and how many meals are uneaten suggests West Suffolk is getting it right.

It spends £9.45 a day per patient on three meals plus snacks, which is in the middle of a range going from £2.57 in West Sussex to £19.81 in Kirklees. Its number of meals returned is also low at eight per cent.

Surprisingly, what gets sent back does not reflect spending. Ipswich spends £5.20 per patient more than West Suffolk but its return rate is 20 per cent higher and the worst in the country.

The Bury Free Press feature on Hospital Food''Pictured: Louise Oaks

The Bury Free Press feature on Hospital Food''Pictured: Louise Oaks

The catering process starts with gathering patients’ menu sheets from the wards. But Mrs Hall explained: “You can’t roast a big joint of pork in an hour so the chefs work on historical figures. Even with all the different people coming into hospital the same choices are made.

“The pork is always the most popular on this menu, ham sandwich is more popular than tuna – it’s very consistent.”

On Tuesday, of the 196 lunches for 20 wards, 140 chose pork and asparagus soup was the starter choice for 138. The equivalent of 10.5 full-time chefs also produce 250 main meals a day for staff.

The hospital only buys in specialist dishes, such as Kosher or Halal, and some desserts like cheesecake and gateaux.

As they must deliver to their ‘customers’, foods that suffer if kept warm are avoided. Mrs Hall said: “Omelettes we took off because they don’t work well in the trolleys. People ask for toast but its soggy by the time it gets to the wards.”

Food is plated up on a short production line with each tray checked against the patient’s menu sheet before going into their ward’s trolley.

On ward G4, matron Simon Taylor admitted: “We’re lucky here because all the food is produced on site. The quality is good and it reaches wards hot and fresh.”

His ward is part of the Royal College of Nursing’s Nutrition Now project which began in 2002 to find ways of monitoring and improving hospital nutrition.

He added: “On G4 we look after a large number of elderly and frail patients and nutrition is key to their recovery.”

Lead dietition Isabel Hooley said in-house food preparation was very important. She added: “It gives us greater flexibility to individualise meals to patients’ needs and if there is a problem we can go and discuss it with the kitchen.”

Take the elderly patient who wouldn’t eat until the family told the ward she had the same tinned food for lunch every day, so they bought a few tins and she began eating.

“It wasn’t nutritionally perfect, but it was better than nothing, which is what she was getting,”said Ms Hooley.

“We’re more concerned about getting nutrition into the patient and hydrating them.”