Relatives have complained that some patients have been left to die because they are unable to reach their food. Sick children and young but seriously disabled patients have also been left to starve.
The report, by official health watchdogs, has been sent to Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health. It blames the fall in the number of nurses, changes in hospital catering arrangements and lack of staff training in the value of nutrition for the "very disturbing problem".
The Independent has seen a copy of the report which follows a ten-month national inquiry by the Association of Community Health Councils. The results will be announced later today by Toby Harris, the ACHC chairman, who said last night that he hoped to discuss the matter with ministers shortly.
He said that relatives believed that people were being left to starve to death. "The relatives know the patients better than the medical and nursing staff and they may well be right. We should certainly take that concern very seriously."
Officials have been taken aback by the results of their investigation which began as a "casual inquiry".
The report warns: "Relatives have raised concerns that patients are not being fed properly because they are elderly - they are being left to die through lack of food." One respondent from Kent told the study: "We feel there was a policy on that ward that if you were expected to recover, you were helped to eat, if not, you were left to fade away."
Another, from Wakefield, said: "My father would not have refused artificial feeding, he was compliant with anything that was asked of him by doctors. I am distraught that my father should have been abandoned in this way."
The report concludes: "Patients going hungry in hospital is a very emotive subject, particularly when someone dies. There is clear evidence that this is a very real problem that can affect everyone going into hospital, not just elderly people."
Angeline Burke, the study's author, writes that hired catering staff often have sole responsibility for feeding patients: "They are not always made aware of the specific needs and requirements of individuals and are not expected to ask patients if they need assistance or why they have left a meal."
One relative told the study: "Her meals were simply dumped in front of her on a bed-table, in extremely hot covered steel dishes, and being blind as well as elderly and unwell, she was not even able to find her food, let alone remove the hot covers and discover what she had."
Another relative, in Newcastle, said: "Even when the table was in front of my mother she could not feed herself properly and we found her more than once eating with her hands. When she did manage to get food to her mouth half of it would fall out."
Some staff admitted they had contributed to the problem. A community nurse from Leicester told the study: "I confess I have been one of those nurses who have placed food on the patient's bed-table, but with every good intention of returning to help. Why did I not return?"
The study points out that the number of registered nurses on hospital wards has fallen dramatically - in 1983, 37,000 registered nurses qualified and it is estimated that only 9,000 will qualify by 1997-98. The report notes: "Many CHCs , relatives and other patients' representatives believe that the withdrawal of nurses has gone too far. Trained nurses, not volunteers or relatives should be responsible for ensuring that patients eat and drink enough when they are in hospital."
The problem is not confined to general hospitals. Aylesbury Vale CHC, which monitors the National Spinal Injuries Centre voiced serious concerns.
"Many [patients] are young people with healthy appetites despite their disability and yet we have experienced patients having to wait for meals because there are insufficient staff to feed patients who are totally dependent," a spokesman said.