I would just like to start by saying what an enormous pleasure it is too see you all here today, many of whom I’ve met before. This whole drive for better Hospital Food began in 2004, when I launched a pilot project led by The Soil Association, of which I am Patron, and Sustain. Then, as I am sure you can imagine, the subject was not at all popular, but fortunately, thanks to the efforts of some particularly inspiring individuals, we have started to make some progress.
Foremost amongst those who have proved what can be done is, without doubt, Mike Duckett – the Catering Manager at the Royal Brompton Hospital. For years now, Mike has managed to show that it is actually possible to serve good food in hospitals without incurring vast extra costs. Before Mike arrived, the Brompton was using its kitchens to prepare food which was either frozen or packaged. Now, they buy fresh food which, as I am sure you all know, is much tastier and – because of the relations with local suppliers who are more flexible – is actually cheaper to buy. And that I think is the key point: so many people think it’s going to be too expensive...
I was so inspired by Mike’s experiences that, in 2008, I chaired a seminar at the Royal Brompton with Chief Executives from hospital trusts from across the country. I wanted them to see for themselves how it could be done financially and logistically, and to witness the enormous benefits proper food was bringing to patients. I am pleased to say that effects were dramatic. Many of the hospitals we are celebrating today changed their strategy as the direct result of that meeting. For example, St Andrew’s Healthcare, a mental health charity near Northampton, decided to re-open their old kitchens and move away from cook-chill ready meals to preparing food in house. Meanwhile, the North Bristol NHS Trust decided to work with their existing wholesalers, who were already NHS-accredited, to increase the quality of their supplies and to source ever more food from within a 50-mile radius.
We’ve heard from some of the nutritionists here today that we are what we eat and we know that the sort of food we eat makes a difference to our health even when we are not ill. It can also make a difference to the way we heal, or not. Everyday we are bombarded with messages about how much salt and sugar we should consume. Too much and we all know we will pay a price in years to come. Too little and we will be malnourished.
Another example is the whole question of constipation, which costs the NHS in England some £60million-a-year and is best treated by changing your diet and eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. Given all this, it is surely self-evident that the food hospital patients are given should be prepared in a way that helps, rather than hinders, the process of recovery. After all, we know that patients’ recovery in hospitals is aided when they eat good quality food. And of course all sorts of patients’ surveys show there is a problem in many ways with hospital food, and this is what has driven so many hospitals here to change to a more enlightened approach. But it is also important to note that, while recipes and nutritional content are important, what I have seen recently of successful hospital meal services suggests that good quality basic ingredients and well-prepared simple meals are of far greater importance in improving patient satisfaction and improving the quantity of what is actually eaten and, therefore, of course, less waste. This is another issue which I think is so often not talked about: how to overcome the issue of waste. A well executed bangers and mash will do more for a patient in hospital than a fancy signature dish with terrible ingredients and too much fat!
However, it is clear that catering managers cannot transform everything single handed. Just like Mike, they need to develop partnerships with local farmers, processors and suppliers to ensure a steady stream of quality produce at affordable prices. I have particularly enjoyed meeting many of the suppliers who are here today. Changing the way we do this ticks so many boxes: local sourcing, a local farmers hub, local economies, reducing food miles, meeting sustainability targets – it can provide a more virtuous circle when linked to things being done at the local level.
Changing the way you produce food in a hospital is far from easy. It requires real leadership. And while change might be difficult to achieve, we know it is possible as all of you here to day are exemplars of that. When we held that meeting at the Royal Brompton in 2008 there were just two exemplars of best practice. We now have at least a dozen hospitals serving the very best of British Food.
I can only hope that, over the coming years, we will be able to persuade many more hospitals to match your remarkable achievements. So I can only congratulate you most warmly on being those who are leading the way and setting such a wonderful example.