WHEN I visited my father in hospital after he suffered a serious heart attack, I was relieved to find him in pretty good spirits.
Surprisingly, the various tubes and beeping machines he was linked up to didn’t seem to concern him too much.
Instead his main gripe was that he was feeling a little peckish because he hadn’t eaten any of his lunch. When I asked why not, he told me what he had been offered: steak and kidney pudding.
Now you don’t have to be a top consultant on an eye-popping wage to realise that giving a man who has just suffered a heart attack a meal chock-full of salt and fat isn’t the best idea in the world.
Yet the bright spark at the hospital in charge of deciding what was dished up to the patients either didn’t twig the implications or, more likely, simply didn’t care. And this was on a specialist heart ward, for Pete’s sake.
Given this unfortunate experience, I can readily believe fresh claims that hospital meals are of a worse standard than those served up to lags languishing in the nation’s jails.
This isn’t just based on anecdotal evidence either. While the food provided in prison is subject to strict regulations in terms of its fat, salt content and origin, shamefully these same guidelines don’t apply to hospitals.
A survey by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food found that three in four hospital meals would qualify for a red light under the Food Standards Agency’s traffic light model because they are too high in saturated fat.
No fewer than 15 out of 25 meals tested contained more salt than a McDonald’s Big Mac.
And this national scandal actually looks set to get even worse. New Department of Health figures show that more than one in three hospital trusts have cut spending on patients’ meals in the past year.
Food bills in some trusts have been reduced by more than two-thirds, with some hospitals now spending as little as 69p on each meal. That’s more than a quarter less than is spent on prison meals – a complete false economy given the money wasted by patients not eating the food that’s being put in front of them.
Little wonder inspectors from the Care Quality Commission health watchdog uncovered numerous cases of patients going hungry on wards.
At one hospital, new mothers were attempting to breastfeed their babies after being left without food for 14 hours a day. They resorted to buying food from the hospital shop or asking relatives to bring them meals.
At another, the meals served up were so bad that nurses often ordered patients takeaways instead.
The root cause of this problem lies not only in the criminal lack of funding but also the fact that many hospitals no longer have kitchens on site and instead rely on outsourced caterers to provide airline-style ready meals which are then (often badly) reheated.
So the next time you’re in hospital and wonder why your brussels sprouts are brown and the macaroni cheese could double as wallpaper paste, there’s your answer.
Indeed, so bad are some of the meals being served up that freelance journalist Mark Sparrow became a mini internet sensation after posting photographs inviting people to try and identify the food he was given during a 10-week stay in hospital. Unsurprisingly, most struggled.
If you go to the site – hospitalnotes.blogspot.co.uk – you will see why. Although be warned: the image of what he was assured was a “bacon chop” is liable to turn your stomach.
“Many hospitals do serve good food,” Sparrow notes wryly beneath the snap of the offending item. “But it’s normally in the staff canteen.”
He ended up making a documentary for Channel 4’s Dispatches on the subject. In it, he met young people with cystic fibrosis, whose survival depends on getting the right diet.
They told him that their parents had to take them out of hospital to local pubs and restaurants to make sure that they ate properly and obtained the necessary calorie content.
He also spoke to the relatives of elderly people who had been served revolting food and then given no help eating it. They told him that NHS staff had falsified records to show that patients had consumed meals when, in reality, the food had remained untouched.
His film triggered a petition calling on the then Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, to do something about it. Despite 4,000 people taking the trouble to sign, it didn’t even receive an acknowledgement. The man in charge of the NHS didn’t even so much as raise an eyebrow.
Of course, this isn’t a new problem. Fanfares greeted a £40m revamp of NHS menus headed by TV chef Loyd Grossman back in 2000, only to be unceremoniously ditched when he quit five years later.
The former Masterchef presenter subsequently revealed that he was continually hampered in his efforts to get healthy and tasty recipes into hospitals by a “chronic lack of common sense” and blamed the project’s failure on a lack of political willpower. Depressingly, the best part of a decade on, nothing has changed.
The Campaign for Better Hospital Food has once again called for the minimum food standards that apply to prisons, schools and civil service canteens to be extended to the NHS, yet the Government continues to resist.
Such a steadfast refusal to address this most basic of issues exposes an inability to grasp that there is something fundamentally and ludicrously wrong with a society in which the rights of convicted criminals usurp those of the ill and infirm.
Pay a visit to your local hospital and you will find it packed to the gills with elderly patients who have spent entire lifetimes dutifully paying their taxes.
Now they see these payments being swallowed up by providing hearty, nutritious meals for prisoners, while they are left to endure the unhealthy slop served up on the wards. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.
Perhaps the only answer once you hit 65 is to enter into a life of crime. At least that way you’re guaranteed a decent and well-balanced diet with three cooked meals a day and someone keeping an eye out for you. You won’t have to worry about the cost of staying warm, either.
As for my father, I’m pleased to report he has since made a full recovery. But it was certainly no thanks to the food.