Senior medics call for celebrity chef to improve inedible hospital fare

Britain's "awful" hospital meals need to be transformed by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver because they are so unhealthy, doctors' leaders said yesterday.

Britain's "awful" hospital meals need to be transformed by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver because they are so unhealthy, doctors' leaders said yesterday.

Doctors claim much of the food served up in hospitals is so inedible or meagre that it leaves patients under-nourished and depressed, making their recovery far slower.

They urged health ministers to recruit the charismatic chef, so he could repeat the extraordinary success of his campaign to expose the woeful quality of school meals in his Channel 4 series Jamie's Dinners. Five weeks ago, the Government was embarrassed into spending another £280m on improving school meals after Oliver delivered a petition signed by 271,000 parents to Downing Street.

Doctors claim that only Oliver has the talent and experience to "get under the skin" of the problem for hospitals. Dr Simon Eccles, chairman of the British Medical Association's junior doctors committee, said patients should start complaining about bad food. "It doesn't matter whether you're at school in Skegness or Surbiton, people are talking about Jamie Oliver. Everybody is aware of his campaign and everyone is looking at individual plates of food. That has never happened in hospitals."

Their demands, unanimously supported at a BMA junior doctors' conference, mark the first significant challenge to the new Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt. She was appointed to replace John Reid on Friday.

The Department of Health has already tried to use one "celebrity chef" to revitalise hospital meals by recruiting Loyd Grossman to head a team of leading chefs in 2000.

They unveiled ambitious plans to serve meals such as "navarin of lamb with cous cous and grilled vegetables". But doctors' leaders claim Grossman's "idealistic" initiative, which cost £40m, was largely ignored by NHS trusts because it was too expensive. Most trusts have about £2 a day, or as little as 60 pence a meal, to feed patients. Hospitals serve 300m meals a year, at a cost of £500m.

Yesterday's conference heard complaints that many hospitals are serving patients cold "snack boxes" for lunch at weekends and evening meals. In some cases, patients were given 1,000 calories a day - half the amount they needed to recuperate. Diabetic patients would suffer relapses and elderly patients develop vitamin deficiencies.

The appeal was supported by the healthy foods campaign group Sustain, which is leading a Department of Health-sponsored drive to improve food in four London hospitals.

Emma Hockridge, the project's leader, said the Treasury would save money if quality local food was used - some London hospitals were buying-in pre-cooked meals from south Wales. She added new hospitals were being built without kitchens. A study found £45m in uneaten meals are thrown away each year.

Jamie Oliver's spokesman said yesterday the chef supported the BMA's initiative, but added he was already heavily committed with existing projects. He said: "Given the Government is now taking action on schools, there's no reason why they can't use the same techniques in hospitals without the need for the same TV programme or the same celebrity endorsement."

The Department of Health conceded many hospital meals needed improvement, but a spokesman insisted ministers were taking action. In 2002, 17 per cent of hospital catering services were rated as "good", but in 2004 this was 44 per cent. He said the Government is working with the British Dietetic Association to raise standards. The Better Hospital Food Programme has also been set up. "This is already delivering," he said.

Making a meal of it

A typical hospital lunch:
Cold ham - textureless
Boiled rice - tepid and bland
Boiled mixed vegetables - over-cooked
All brought in by lorry Cost: 60p

What Jamie might do:
Roast chicken with lemon and rosemary potatoes - crisp and tasty
Braised spinach - rich in vitamins
Stewed fruit crumble - hot and filling
All freshly cooked at the hospital Cost: £1?

Additional reporting by Karen Hall