Stephen Jardine: hospital meals need improvement

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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ANOTHER week, another flurry of food advice and health scares. Since last Saturday, we’ve learned that fat might not be so bad for us after all and that we need to drastically reduce the amount of sugar we consume every day.

From salmonella in eggs to cancer-causing food dyes, down the years we have proved ourselves to be a nation that loves dire warnings from scientists about what we should eat or drink. There is one headline you will never see: “Everything in moderation is just fine.” That is the truth, it’s just a little bit dull.

Away from the bad news, some good news on school meals. On Thursday, the Scottish Government issued new guidance to improve what is served in schools and to increase children’s knowledge about food and how it affects their health and wellbeing.

The guidance has been developed by an expert working group and Scotland’s local authorities and builds on what has been achieved over the past ten years by the “Hungry For Success” initiative.

As schoolgirl Martha Payne proved with her school lunch blog, there will always be blips in progress, but in general terms, Scottish school meals are unrecognisable from what was being served up a generation ago.

While nutritional standards are well established, what the new guide does is put taste high on the agenda. “Above all, food needs to be appealing. Displays need to showcase the quality used,” says the report. So with the new guidelines promoting local produce, tasty, healthy food and ensuring school meals staff have support and training, it sounds like everything is sorted. Well, not quite.

Our restaurant food may be transformed, we may be eating better at home than ever before and schools are serving meals to children which most adults would now be happy to eat, but there is still a big culinary black hole in Scotland – hospital food remains one of the most depressing aspects of public catering in this country. Patients being cared for by Scotland’s largest health board, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, are being fed on just £4 a day by staff who have seen their numbers cut by 20 per cent in recent years.

In 2008, the Scottish Government set the standard for food in hospitals with the horribly titled report, National Catering and Nutrition Specification For Food and Fluid Provision in Hospitals in Scotland. Reading it would make no-one feel hungry.

What we have in hospitals is food that ticks nutritional boxes but forgets the small matter of looking appealing and tasting good. For a captive audience of sick patients often struggling to maintain an appetite, serving food they want to eat is the least they deserve.

The Scottish Government has transformed school meals. Now it needs to set its sights on hospital catering, applying the same criteria to ensure taste and appearance are at least as important as nutritional standards.