The Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) is calling for a "minimum spend per patient" in the wake of NHS England's plans for a healthier NHS workforce.
The move follows the announcement last week of NHS England's drive to improve the health of the 1.3 million NHS workers. In his bid to introduce measures to keep staff fit and in work, NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens said: "Equally, it's time for PFI contractors and catering firms to 'smell the coffee' - ditch junk food from hospitals and serve up affordable and healthy options instead. Staff, patients and visitors alike will all benefit."
In response, HCA national chairman Philip Shelley commented: "Many of the areas of concern that are being raised as Simon Stevens outlines his push to help NHS workers get healthier may be beyond our control as NHS caterers. But it is important that we are involved in the decision-making process, and specifically around the food we produce."
Shelley added: "It's clear we need consistency. School meals cost the same across the board so why isn't this possible for hospital food? NHS Benchmarking Data shows the mean cost of patient food per day is £8.97, with the lowest value at £3."
Shelley, who is also the facilities manager at Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton, Somerset, added: "I know of hospitals in parts of the UK that are spending between £10 to £12 per head. Every patient should get the same high-quality care and choice, but there is massive overspending going on and it's unfair to the hospitals whose food and drink budgets are being cut."
Musgrove Park spends £3.60 per head, which Shelley believes is sustainable, but to save money he says other Trusts are serving soup and sandwiches for supper instead of a hot meal.
"This may work for the Trust financially, but feeding patients is a complex process. One size does not fit all because we're dealing with an increasing number of patients who require special diets and nutritional support."
Shelley suggested that NHS kitchens supporting retail outlets should be run as professional enterprises and that hospital kitchens need to take a commercial approach, operating a "sensible profit-and-loss system".
Instead of subsidised catering, he said caterers should find savings through buying differently, using seasonal produce to reduce costs, and by working closely with patients on the preferred timing of the main meal and on what snacks they enjoy. This not only gives caterers a better understanding of the patients' needs, it also reduces wastage.
"Hospitals and Trusts have made regular decisions to outsource food production where they see a bigger benefit, using the knowledge of the retail sector to maximise financial investment. But this must not be to the detriment of our customers," said Shelley.
"We're urging our members to support the up-skill training of our service teams to get them to the appropriate professional levels. If we are to plan for long-term success, our outlets need to be profitable, providing varied foods and beverages meeting the needs of both the patients and staff. We know what we need to do. We now just need the Government to play its part."
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