Health Check: 'If you believe the ratings, hospital wards are drenched in balsamic vinegar dressings and parmesan shavings'

You have 300 million meals to serve every year in 1,200 different buildings and only £2 to spend per person each day doing it. Next to the feat that is hospital catering, the miracle of the loaves and fishes pales in comparison.

But if the Government is to be believed, even Jesus has nothing on a TV chef and a bit of couscous. Last week the Department of Health produced its annual ratings for food quality in all NHS trusts. The whole exercise was almost Stalinist in its propagandist qualities - every hospital was rated as either good or acceptable. Not one failed.

This, said ministers, meant that the £34m Better Hospital Food Programme, spearheaded by Loyd Grossman, was a success. Grossman has, apparently, revolutionised hospital food.

If you believe the ratings, hospital wards are now drenched in balsamic vinegar dressings and sprinkled with parmesan shavings. All this came as a surprise to a friend just out of hospital after having her first child. As a diabetic she needs a balanced diet, and as a new mother, plenty of fibre.

Both seemed in short supply at the hospital. Breakfast was Rice Krispies and cold white toast; lunch a tuna sandwich; dinner chicken and overdone veg. So what is the truth? Is NHS food now worthy of a Michelin star, or does it still leave a nasty taste in the mouth?

The launch of the Better Hospital Food Programme in May 2000 was a classic case of New Labour gimmickry. Grossman was brought in as a food tsar and told to cogitate, deliberate and digest, as his Masterchef catchphrase went, over the state of NHS meals.

He assembled a "magnificent seven" of the country's top chefs to help him and together they came up with more than 200 delicacies that they claimed would transform hospital food. Out went meat and two veg at lunchtime, and in came saffron couscous at dinner-time, with snacks available throughout the day.

So it had everything the Blair Government likes when launching a new programme - celebrity, modernity and a tsar (an important ingredient in any political platter). Alas, it turned out to be a triumph of style over substance. All hospitals were supposed to have introduced at least three of the new meals by December 2001, and the menus should have been fully in place by this year.

Unfortunately, rumblings of discontent soon started, both from patients' stomachs and in the offices of cash-challenged catering managers. Patients began voting with their bed trays. Airedale General Hospital in West Yorkshire jettisoned the menu after complaints that the food choices were "too posh". Another NHS trust went back to shepherd's pie after the menus came back with comments such as "what the hell is couscous?".

It wasn't just patients' appetites that were hit hard. Hospital managers complained that the new meals were eating into budgets because the costs were so much higher than the more traditional alternatives.

At the last count, the Hospital Caterers' Association estimated that 25 per cent of trusts have yet to introduce a single dish from the menu, and less than half offer three of the choices.

Many of the dishes have been dropped and catering departments have gone back to the old options. At no time is nutrition more important than when you are ill, and yet it seems NHS patients are still short-changed when it comes to catering. The stodgy pies of the past may not be the answer, but nor, it seems, is mung bean casserole. Maybe Loyd should get out of the kitchen.

Jeremy Laurance is away

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