Why NHS Food Is Crap

One of the things you notice if you work long enough for large companies is that the quality of any given support service suddenly becomes a lot better if the people managing it are themselves users of that service.

When I worked in Africa, the senior management had their own company-supplied vehicles and drivers to take them to and from the airport; everyone else used a shuttle bus. With no senior management ever having to see what taking the shuttle bus was like, you can imagine the state of it.

You sometimes see a similar thing with travel departments. The administrative staff who work in them are usually local employees who generally don’t have to go on business trips in far-flung cities taking flights that leave at 7am. When you come to deal with them, this becomes painfully obvious.

Last week I saw somebody on Twitter complaining about the food in the NHS, and naturally somebody leaped in underneath to claim that this was a result of the catering being outsourced to private companies. There exists a mindset among some people that private companies cannot possibly provide a better service than public bodies because of the profit factor, the veritable planet of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. But in the case of the NHS the food really is terrible, at least from what I’ve seen and heard.

Thanks to a decade or so traipsing around oil and gas offices, installations, and construction sites I’ve seen a lot of mass-catering and it ranges from extremely good to absolute shite. In most cases the catering has been outsourced to one of two companies: Eurest (a subsidiary of Compass, which is British) and Sodexo (which is French). I don’t know if they supply the NHS with catering services, but I’d be surprised if they don’t. What I found is that the quality of food is dependent on two things:

1. Budget

2. Whether the management or the management’s close colleagues eat it.

One the first point, the budget is the difference between reasonable food and very good food. With the oil industry swimming in money until fairly recently, the food in the canteens was generally pretty good, and offshore it could be outstanding (the food on the Safe Astoria was superb, thanks to a Singaporean chef).

But it is the second point that makes the real difference. The one place in the whole Sakhalin II construction project where the food was absolutely woeful was at the transit camp in Nogliki, halfway up Sakhalin Island. As the name suggests, it was a camp set up for people to spend a night or two in transit between Nogliki, where the train from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk terminated, and the various construction camps that lay further to the north. Aside from a few poor bastards who were based there permanently, people were only supposed to be there for one or two nights, and it showed. I spent a night there between coming off the Lun-A platform and going to inspect the Piltun lighthouse.  The beds had been bought second-hand from the folk who dismantled the barracks at Auschwitz and fitted with dark brown sheets that were supposed to be that colour. Dinner consisted of a slab of grey meat and watery gravy by an Indian who told me that’s all there was. By contrast, the grub on the actual sites was excellent. Senior managers never, ever stayed at the transit camp.

The reason why the NHS food is crap is not because private companies are providing it, but because the people who administer the catering contract do not eat it. I’d be surprised if even the NHS staff eat it; if they do, they are low-level staff who don’t have much clout with the people in charge. Or perhaps the staff are fed in separate canteens? I don’t know, but the reason it is crap is because those who eat it have no influence over those who pay for it, and those who pay for it don’t eat it. If people want the food in the NHS to improve they should insist that the middle management eat it as well. It would improve overnight at no additional cost.

Of course, this is a long-winded version of Milton Friedman’s four ways to spend money, but it’s fun to spot examples of it in the wild.

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8 thoughts on “Why NHS Food Is Crap

  1. Du Pont solved and pioneered the massive problem of making dynamite without ever having one single ignition/explosive incident in the plant by insisting that the plant manager and his family lived within a house located inside the plant and any resultant explosion blast zone. Dynamite production also stopped if the family were not present inside the plant.

    Best workplace catering standard I have experienced was in one of the Japanese trading house corporate complex restaurants in Tokyo, can’t remember which one it was. Senior management and clients ate there.

    Worst, Ok Tedi mine PNG highlands, I first thought it was for locals only, I never returned, lost a lot of weight, don’t believe any management ate there.

  2. Once upon a time, in the South Australian outback, I ate breakfast in the canteen of the mob who used brown coal for electricity generation. Pretty good it was; the local management ate there too, as did any visiting senior management.

    There was nowhere else to eat, of course, which showed that the Newman Effect outweighed the effect of lack of competition.

  3. Also, whenever it is suggested that patients are charged for meals, there’s always a concerted response that it’s not fair and (unbelievably) it would cost more to administer than the money raised. I suspect it is simply that the notion that patients might have some say in things is anathema.

  4. MPCPO had the greatest kitchen in the North Sea. Thanks Total for the lobster. Then they subcontracted or sold it or something.

    Norwegian offshore food was actually pretty good. Has anyone seen a Norwegian restaurant anywhere other than in Norway?

  5. My understanding of the complaints about NHS food is not the quality but the quantity. Apparently NHS dieticians think we can all survive on 500 (my guess) calories when in hospital. As always with the State this applies if you are a prop forward or a little old lady weighing sqrt(bugger all).

  6. Two places where I recall memorably bad food provided to captive consumers, where the management (or at least people with clout) presumably had to eat it too: the French military base at Mourmelon; and the Shell compound in Port Harcourt. In both cases I was expecting a treat, and got something which would have disgraced a 70s school canteen.

  7. and the Shell compound in Port Harcourt.

    Which is why everyone eats at the Total one right next door. French, you see. 🙂

  8. If management eats in the same canteen as everyone else, that’s a good sign for lots of reasons – food quality only being one.

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