Mike Duckett - making hospital food better

Posted on: 31 March 2011 by Alexander Hay

Michael Wale gives us food for thought on hospital food

An organic future may await food in NHS hospitals

There is no better example at present, amid all the debate about how the National Health Service should be run, than the case of Mike Duckett, who set up and guides the food programme at the Royal Brompton hospital in London.

Patients don't leave the Royal Brompton too early, and when they do they have usually gained weight. This almost guarantees they do not return, thus saving the NHS money. Patients at most other hospitals usually lose weight when they are in hospital, mainly because of the diabolical standard of what they are fed as return visits become a habit.

Duckett, however, has spent a lifetime within the food industry starting life as a commis chef in Taunton, before he moved to London to work in the kitchens of the Cumberland . Next he moved to a sanatorium, which he thinks has now become an estate, before becoming Assistant NHS Manager at St Mary Abbots, Kensington.

Since his arrival at the Royal Brompton, he has been guiding the menu towards organic food. But then Duckett is a one-man crusade. For example, against all the odds, he secured a deal that means all milk provided at the hospital is organic. This was done in co-operation with a trucking company which would bring organic milk to the hospital at a cut transportation rate, because the firm’s owner felt it was both good PR and also saved his company money by using empty lorry space.

But Duckett kept looking for more local food of high quality. He did another deal with a free range egg farm in Ashford, Kent, and agreed to buy 50,000 eggs a year. He also discovered St Nicholas Farm, which grew potatos. He offered the owners a deal to bring him 300 kilos of potatoes a week. Because of the guaranteed production, they were able to lower their price. Meanwhile, he also managed to secure an organic bread deal with 3663, the mass food deliverer.

He has also consulted the Soil Association and Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, about sourcing more locally produced vegetables.

He says: “It’s a start. All the fish we use is guaranteed under the sustainable stewardship programme. All our pork is guaranteed English. We serve organic burgers with 77% meat in each one. You have to do all this gradually, negotiating with local suppliers. Over the years I’ve been to so many food festivals and conferences making contacts.”

He is aware of the government spending cuts demanded, however, and he doesn’t see his scheme spreading unless more is spent on food. Yet there could be between 5% and 9% cuts just on the food budget alone. He argues that the more you spend on feeding the patients, the more you save the NHS in future health bills. Duckett won’t let this beat him, however, saying: “I’m trying to get charitable funds to help, there are charitable funds linked to our hospital. Special Funds.”

What he would like to see is a single menu rolled out across the NHS nationwide. The reasoning is that since the highly successful McDonalds only serves one menu, so you know what you are getting and they can source it easily, why shouldn't hospitals?

He is already organising a group in London to co-operate in providing food to the public sector. He explains: “We’re having a word in London with the other hospitals. We’re still working closely with the Royal Marsden, Imperial College’s hospitals, which include Charing Cross, and St Mary’s and Lambeth hospital. We’ve also been talking to the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade.“

Duckett wants to go further, though, and raise the issue as to how contracts are set up. At present, he says, 3663 has contracts to supply the NHS, Met Police and Imperial College, who all have different contracts. DHL also has contracts to supply the NHS with food. He feels that this style of working puts profit before people, less in quality, and so cheaper food is supplied.

He asks: “Why do we all have to sit in our different offices? Organic food is well-produced and sustainable. I think the way forward is so easy, but everyone else thinks it’s a problem. One of the main problems is that some hospitals do not have a kitchen. That all started at the beginning of the 1980s with some fellow in America called Professor Henry Fox doing away with them and encouraging centralised production, frozen and delivered around the nation.

“When we met, he apologised. I explained that he was causing me a few problems. He said that it was the thing at the time. American and Canadian Hospitals were all persuaded to follow his advice. So we had to start by bringing back kitchens. The schools also did away with them as well”.

The power base in hospital food is the Hospital Caterers Association. Duckett runs the South East branch. Now he plans to air his views more frequently: “They are going to get it from me. It’s not a Womens Institute meeting. They must come with positive ideas.”

In any case, with Duckett in the kitchens, things can only get better for the people who matter most of all - the patients.

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Alexander Hay

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