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Catering Tenders under Scrutiny in Operation Hospital Food

Executive Compass Branding

Tender writing and food are two things close to my heart and so it was with interest that I watched with interest someone trying to plat fog on Saturday morning TV.

In yet another attempt to raise awareness about the quality of NHS catering, James Martin this week waded into the issue with the BBC’s programme Operation Hospital Food. Whether you saw the plug on Saturday Kitchen or saw the programme itself, you probably weren’t surprised at the outcome. That it is in fact more expensive to cook from fresh and offer totally nutritious meals at all times to the hundreds of thousands of people that reside in an NHS hospital on a daily basis.

From frozen omelette to packet soups, James was sure he could beat the £3.49 per day, per patient food budget at Scarborough Hospital with freshly cooked, nutritious meals. Sadly, every meal came in at a significantly higher cost than the current menu and the Scarborough Budget is significantly more than many other hospitals.

It is a prevalent dichotomy in the budget-constrained, so called ‘cash strapped’ NHS . On the one hand, money is tight and food isn’t directly intrinsic to the well-being of the patient unlike equipment, nursing staff and Doctors. On the other hand, tasty nutritious food is a significant factor in good mental and physical well-being and can aid a quicker recovery from illness and surgery.

There have been a wide range of experiments, pilots and tendering initiatives designed to tackle the problem of budget vs. health and quality. Whilst some have been successful such as that of Darlington Memorial Hospital, others have fallen by the wayside, being too expensive or not as effective as hoped. Add to the mix the budget cuts as a result of an ailing economy and savings demanded due to an ageing and growing population and the outlook is not good. In line with its Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention (QIPP) policy, the Department of Health is aiming to save £15 million by 2015, with the aim of reducing costs and improving quality at the same time and hospital catering does not escape attention.

The latest initiative to attain this target is the NHS Supply Chain Frozen Ready Meals Framework – a style of tendering that brings a range of suppliers on board rather than one main supplier. The idea is that this increases choice and quality whilst offering better value for money. Unfortunately, the typical tender weighting is Cost @ 80% and Quality @20% – surprising in light of the current publicity. Tender writing and tender writers have never had it so good!! Despite this figure, many hospital trusts are now putting their catering functions back out to tender in order gain better value for less or similar cost. By commercialising the function completely, trusts are looking to gain value from private sector investment and hopefully, improve quality and patient nutrition and satisfaction at the same time.

Whether current and future NHS catering tenders achieve this desired balance remains to be seen, but hopefully we won’t see the next generation of celebrity chef pulling freeze dried packets soups from the shelf with a look of disdain and strong determination to change things for the better.

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