Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Comment: Hospital Food Sucks!

I am writing this post after watching the Dispatches programme on Channel 4 last night (at last, a fair and well researched programme from them!) about Hospital food.

After spending 10 weeks in Traction, reporter Mark Sparrow started a Food blog, chronicling the awful fayre served up by his NHS hospital. However, he did say he managed to have a few great meals, such as salmon with new potatoes. He was lucky!

Now, I can completely sympathise with Mark, and agree wholeheartedly that food in NHS hospitals is appalling beyond belief, food so bad you wouldn't feed your dog, let alone your worst enemy it. I experienced this first hand in 2008.

Due to my waters breaking at 27 weeks when pregnant with Littlest, I was forced to stay at my local ante natal care ward for a week, followed by 5 days on the Maternity ward. I then spent 4 days on SCBU just before Littlest came home 3 and a half months on from having him.

My first introduction to hospital food was dinner, and I was told it was really important to keep eating and eat well, for Littlest's sake. Off I went to the little side room to get something from the large trolley, queueing up with the other women.

What I saw was six large silver catering dishes, filled with violently coloured slop. Yes, that's the only word I can use- slop. I asked the Nurse who was over seeing the food (and making sure we all ate something) what was available, and was told it was Ethnic choice food, and the slop was in fact different forms of lentil curry. So I asked where the non-ethnic choice was, and was pointed to some half mashed half whole boiled potatoes, grey in colour and hardly edible looking (I couldn't stomach the idea of tasting to find out if they tasted as bad as they looked). That was it, potato, nothing with it. She then told me I must eat something, so I took a sandwich, and an apple.

The sandwich, on reflection, seemed like a great idea, yet the next day I realised that these were brought up to the ward at 12pm, and then left out all day, on the side- not refrigerated at all. So when I picked one up at 6pm, it had sat for 6 hours sweating in its plastic tray. No wonder it was stale and curly at the edges.

That meant sandwiches were off the menu after that as a dinner option.

We could, however help ourselves to coffee and tea, but were expected to put some coins in the jar. We also had water jugs, but again, these were left out all day and very rarely refreshed, and when I asked a few times for a re-fill, I would find myself snarled at by the less than friendly staff. Whilst I was sympathetic of them being understaffed, it was August, it was hot and the room was unventilated with no air conditioning.

All week, all that was available was the same "ethnic option". There were quite a few ethnic groups on the ward, however, I spoke to a number of differently raced women whilst there- it passed the time if nothing else, and everyone moaned about the food. Regardless of what we all ate at home, those brave enough to try the lentil concoctions did so once and regretted it after. 

Halfway through my stay, I went to the room, pondering whether to have a pear instead of an apple, and there was excitement from the queue as there was fish for dinner.

Well, yes and no. It was served up as fish in white sauce. What I got was a plate of runny yet lumpy white sauce which had the hint of the sea about it in that it was salty beyond belief (I'm not going to say what I thought it reminded me of as I'm too ladylike. It was white, salty and fishy, you work it out). It had burnt onion in it. 

Fish, however was lacking. Apparently, if I'd been in the first, not the third ward of 4 beds called for dinner, I'd have got some fish. By the time I got there and was served by the bored nurse, there was none left. 

So a plate of white salty slop, with burnt onions, and those ubiquitous grey lumps of mash and spud mixture.

Over the week in ante-natal care, I felt tired and ratty, I was always hungry. I have a good appetite and a good cook at home, I'm used to eating nicely sized, nice tasting food. Its not even posh what we eat, and not expensive, just good, old fashioned grub like Shepherds Pies and stews.

Luckily for me, one of the breakfast trolley ladies on my last day on the ward before I went into labour in the evening asked me whether I'd like toast or cereal for breakfast (the only time we had a choice was between the two at breakfast, and which we were woken up for at 7am), and I asked if I could have both!

She was so lovely, not one of the midwifery staff but an auxiliary, and she gave me three bits of all be it cold toast, and a generous helping of cornflakes- probably the only time when cold toast has tasted so good!

Typically, the one night when a possibly edible meal of fish and chips was served and I was in labour- I could see the food, yet despite calling for help I couldn't move as when I stood up even slightly I felt like my legs didn't work and felt lightheaded too. It took for one of the woman on my ward to go and shout at the desk staff before they came and attended to me- even though I had been telling them since 2pm and it was now 6pm.

Anyhow, back to the food.

After Littlest was born, I was then in the Maternity ward, and hoped the food would improve.

Some hope! 

On the Sunday, I thought I might be able to eat my first proper meal since the week before at home, as we were told it was Roast lunch day- a possibility of which caused me such happiness I could almost have salivated.

Sadly, the promised roast was worse even than the curly sandwich- beef which was 95% gristle and 5% mush, in a small round shape. I suspect it was very cheap sandwich beef, which would account for the shape and the gristle. 1 small spud, not roasted (not even the plague of Aunt Bessie fakery either), it was cold and grey. The gravy was thin and greasy- how they managed that I'll always wonder. Plus a carrot. Not a whole carrot, a slice of. Great.

Luckily, one of my co-patients Mums very sneakily brought in a massive bucket of KFC, although she had to hide it. On one occasion she had brought in "outside food" and had it taken off her and chucked away. We all had to do a Mission Impossible movement round the ward to her curtained bed, keeping an eye out for the staff. My God it was worth it though! Yum!

All in all the food over that close to two week period was so rotten, I lost a stone, and was close to back to my pre-pregnant weight, not bad after a c-section and all the swelling that causes.

Then, when I had to go in to learn how to care for a sick Littlest at home, and manage his oxygen intake, I thought I'd be given a meal. Wrong. 

We were told we had to go to the canteen and buy our food ourselves. That wasn't cheap.

When you factor in the £6 for 24 hours TV, 75p a minute calls, and then close to £20 a day for food, it all adds up.

What has always baffled me was that the canteen food, although quite expensive, was gorgeous, with huge servings available of food ethnic and otherwise, loads of choice and steaming hot. 

So, why was the patients food so awful across the board?

Seriously, I am that confident that the food was so inedible that I think WP hospital should close as a proper hospital and open as a fat camp. Serve the morbidly obese types you see on programmes like The Biggest Loser the food there, they'd lose weight in weeks refusing to eat the stuff they tried to force on me.

I even looked up WP on Netmums- whilst overall the staff get the thumbs up, the food is overwhelmingly slated. Even by Ethnic ladies!

The lack of food choice was introduced when the people behind the food had to factor in that Slough and the surrounding area is a culturally diverse place- hence the chick peas and lentils. 

However, one Asian lady, who spoke very poor English, managed to agree with the rest of us patients, by complaining that even in her country, they offer more choice, and that even at home she would eat the lentil option with a meat or fish dish, and certainly not with grey spuds or congealed rice! And a Polish patient who said she wouldn't expect us all to eat the kinds of food Polish people eat (there are a vast number of Polish immigrants in Berkshire) and despite there being just as many Polish patients they weren't catered for either. But she didn't expect them to be, as it was an English hospital, so surely the food should reflect that too?

Could it be that the food served up, not only satisfied the ethnic lobby who demand, quite rightly, that minority groups be catered for, but also because it was cheap. That's probably, in my view, more the case.If there was such a concern not to insult these minority groups, then why not serve Halal meat, at least that would have been a more edible option than lentil curry, and would have satisfied the cultural needs of a rich and diverse area.

Why also, on the scarce nights when food like the fish in sauce was available did it not stretch to all the women on the ward? Eight beds in and the fish was gone, surely the catering team know how many women are on one ward?

Tonight, local chef and Bray Botherer Heston Blumenthal, is on a mission to create better food at Alder Hey Children's Hospital.

However, without doubt once those TV cameras disappear, the food will return to its usual poor, cheap, and nasty status quo.

Its time that food, which is vital to help us keep our strength up (and get us out the hospital quicker) is overhauled.

I can't see that happening anytime soon.

If you haven't discovered Mark's Blog, Notes From a Hospital Bed  yet, it's well worth adding to your reader.


  1. What a great post. I couldn't bring myself to watch the documentary and thankfully so far I've never had the experience of hospital food.

    It sounds like you had a horrible time, and I'm shocked you have to pay for TV too. I understand the NHS are overworked, understaffed and running low on funds but you'd think keeping the patients they have healthy & well fed would be high on their list of priorities.

    I'm off to check out Marks blog, thanks for sharing that, maybe I'll get round to watching the show too. x

  2. I didn't see the documentary but saw the commericials for it. I remember when I had Little M, I had had a blood transfusion and was in intensive care and my food was always, late, cold and looked NOTHING like what it was supposed to be. My husband would go and buy me food outside the hospital. Unbelievable that this isn't a priority.

    By the way, how are you?? Long time no speak. Im guilty, I'm always busy with work, and twitter has to take a back seat.

    talk or see you soon! Maria x


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