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Tuesday, 16 September 2014

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Ready meals for Cumbria's community hospitals put to the taste test

Ready meals due to be introduced to Cumbria’s community hospitals received a mixed reaction.

Hospital food photo
A selection of the frozen meals which would be provided by Apetito

League of Friends groups had expressed serious concerns about a proposal – dubbed ‘Microgate’ by one campaigner – to replace freshly cooked food with frozen ready meals.

But the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which runs all nine of north Cumbria’s cottage hospitals and the Carleton Clinic in Carlisle, says it will allow them to offer a good choice of meals to meet all dietary requirements, while guaranteeing quality – and saving £100,000 a year.

Tasting sessions were held in Brampton and Maryport so that League of Friends representatives and hospital/kitchen staff could sample the food.

The reaction was mixed, with some campaigners saying they had been won over but others remaining unhappy.

John Holland, chairman of the Friends of Brampton Hospital, had strongly criticised the ready meal proposals, saying they were no substitute for fresh, home-cooked meals.

But he said that, although he still had some reservations, he had changed his stance after a delegation from Brampton, including his wife Hilary, attended the tasting sessions.

“They were actually very impressed by the food. It’s not a microwave meal as we would think of it, but a frozen meal that you cook for an hour in a special oven,” he said.

Mrs Holland, who was initially very sceptical, added: “I really rated the meals actually. I was surprised because ready meals don’t sound so good but they actually looked good and were extremely tasty.

“There are other benefits too – flexibility, if someone is admitted to hospital late at night they can still be offered a meal, and also the nutritional content is set out on every meal.”

The Brampton group hope the new meal system could alleviate ongoing staffing problems in their kitchen.

Assistant cook Mandy Jobson, who has been testing the meals on the ward for the past few weeks, is also strongly in favour. She said previously patients had to choose their meals at least a day in advance, but this way they could decide what they wanted to eat about an hour before mealtime.

She added: “This isn’t like any frozen dinner. They are really well done. We’ve been using them for about three weeks and the patients like them. As long as they are happy we can’t complain.

“From our point of view we have a lot of poorly patients who need high-calories meal. It also means we can properly cater for anyone – vegans, diabetics, people who are gluten free. We have to move with the times.”

But not everyone was as convinced. Brenda Lock, cook at Wigton hospital, said: “I have no qualms about the textured [pureed] food, it is good and will help us and the patients. We can’t make it to that standard and it doesn’t look like pureed food. Patients need dignity and this gives them it.

“I thought the portions of the other food were enormous and puddings awful, but that is personal preference. Wigton hospital is renowned for its food.”

Dr Sean Hudson, who lives in Caldbeck and works as a GP in Maryport, also continued to have reservations.

He said: “Physically and mentally this food does not provide a holistic approach to the patients’ needs.”

Chris Mitchell, representing Penrith League of Friends, was happy with the standard but wanted to keep the situation under review.

He said: “We still have some concerns and we would like the trust to monitor what is being used/sent back.”

There also remain some concerns about what kitchen facilities will be retained, ensuring patients can still get simple choices, such as poached eggs, toast, jacket potatoes and salads, if they do not have the appetite for a full meal. But the trust has insisted that staff will still be able to provide these.

It added that food provider, Apetito, insisted all of its meals were served on a china plate, not in ready meal cartons.

They provide specially formulated foods for patients who need pureed meals, which have been designed to look and taste like a proper meal but melt in the mouth for easy swallowing. They were particularly well received at the tasting sessions.

Health trust bosses said the food was made by fully-trained chefs, with no artificial colours, flavourings, preservatives or hydrogenated fats.

Trust chairman Mike Taylor, who attended one of the tasting sessions, added: “I was impressed by the meals prepared for patients with eating and swallowing difficulties. The other more conventional meals – of which there is a considerable choice – were presented in an attractive fashion and tasted as they should.

“I was comforted to hear that in addition to these meals there would also always be a supply available of fresh fruit and other snacks that patients might request.”

The trust said it would make every effort to redeploy any staff affected by the changes in meal arrangements into other posts.

A spokeswoman added: “Without this increase in quality in our catering for patients the trust will increasingly find it difficult to deliver the consistency of services within the resources available.”

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