The periodical issue of hospital food seems to have reared its head again – like a proverbial bad penny and I thought I might recount my experiences and thoughts on the issue.
Due to a serious illness a few years ago I spent nearly a month in a London hospital.
In general the nursing was exactly what you expect – generally very good, with the odd exception – so a bit like most services and industries in fact.
But the food, oh god the food!
Now, bearing in mind that the budget was about £2.40 per patient per day at the time (I gather it is now about £2.80), to provide three meals per day is actually bloody impressive.
But it is also so awful.
Firstly, breakfast was served after 9am, and supper before 5pm – hardly how anyone actually eats their meals. While we had a choice of meals, to be selected the day before, it was what I would call typical English stodge, along with “the vegetarian option”.
I quickly learnt that the veggie option could either be a quite decent spicy curry – or pasta cooked and reheated to the point that it was a plate of rubber in cheese sauce.
The key thing for me though, was less the quality or the taste, or the stupid hours it was served – but that none of the food was what I usually ate at home.
I am in hospital. I am in a strange bed, very ill and lacking any of the home comforts that most of us find so strangely helpful when stuck at home feeling poorly.
It is a psychologically very scary environment, which in itself is actually not that good at helping you to get better.
In this very unfamiliar environment, you are not even able to eat the sort of comfort food you might prefer to eat when ill.
Now, I am not actually saying that the NHS should lay on the sort of meals that would grace a good restarunt, and indeed, I did write to the NHS food czar after I left hospital with my views and suggestions.
It’s incredibly simple
Those who want food, supplied free at the point of use/consumption, can continue to get it.
However, those of us willing to, should be allowed to buy “ready meals” and similar from tesco, sainsburys, whatever and have it heated up by the hospital kitchen.
A Tesco finest meal is not nutritionally perfect – and probably not that different from the hospital food – but critically, it’s what a person will be used to eating.
In a strange scary hospital, eating familiar food is an unbelievably comforting experience.
I am far more likely to eat a Mediterranean ready-meal than I am shepherds pie that lacks any flavour or appeal to my preferences.
I cannot think there wouldn’t be a single supermarket that wouldn’t be delighted to supply their meals to hospitals, probably at cost price (increased overall sales leads to lower costs anyway), and the hospital could add 50p if they wanted to cover the heating costs.
Yes, I am paying for my meals – but it is also my choice – and indeed, as I am no longer consuming hospital food, my “budget” can be redeployed to the meals that everyone else is eating – so the effective budget might go from £2.80 per patient to maybe £3.00 per patient.
Sadly, the hospital I was staying in, I was rushed to in rather dire situation, and my (grudgingly tolerated) walks to the local newsagent was the limits of my physical ability at the time. A branch of Pret has since opened nearby, and I know that had it been there when I was in hospital, I would have brought lunch every day from that branch, just to get away from the bland hell I was experiencing in the hospital.
After I left, I wrote a letter and to their credit got a reply.
In essence, the idea I proposed is a good one, but it goes against a political principle that people should not be ALLOWED to pay for basic services provided to them while in hospital.
I am permitted to go out and buy food and eat it – but food delivered to my bed has to be provided at no cost.
As I learned from the reply I got, had I known about it – I could have asked friends to bring in ready meals, and the hospital would have heated them up for me, but I wasn’t told that at the time and it would have been difficult to expect friends to do that.
I could buy sweets and tabloid newspapers from the hospital shop – which is why I used to hobble to the other newsagent to buy decent newspapers and current affairs magazines. At the time, the local Tesco, had I even known about it was too far for me to be able to walk to.
But why not just formalise the system and let hospitals “sell” food to those who want to pay for it?
Ringfence the food budget if necessary to sell the political aspect of protecting the food allowance, but don’t let petty politics get in the way of letting people make a choice about what they want to eat.
Apart from prisons, is there any other institution that imposes such restrictions on what a person can eat?
Even taking into account the loss of appetite from the illness, hospital food is still the most effective weight-loss diet I have ever been on – and it annoys the hell out of me that 5 years later, the issue is still being talked about when such a damn simple solution exists.