NHS hospitals are spending as little as £2.57 to feed patients a day – or 86p a meal – according to new figures.
A massive disparity in what is spent on patients around the country was revealed by the statistics compiled by the NHS Information Centre.
Among those spending the least were Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust (£2.57), Harrow Primary Care Trust (PCT) (£2.75), North Somerset PCT (£2.76), North West London Hospital NHS Trust (£3.13) and Herefordshire PCT (£3.66).
The figures showed more than 30 hospital trusts – almost one in 10 of the total – pay less than £5 a day on breakfast, lunch and dinner for each patient in their care.
North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust spends £6.60 per patient per day.
Colin Chapman, head of catering at the trust, said: “When you have a limited amount of money to make nutritious meals, it is important to make the most of resources.
“The catering service is working well, but we’re always looking at ways to make improvements. Our ward hostesses serve up the food on the wards and we’re continuing to receive some really positive comments.
“A recent national inpatient survey showed that levels of satisfaction with the range of food provided and quality of food are rising.
“Food was also rated excellent in the patient environment action team (PEAT) assessment.
“Getting the right meals that satisfy a patient’s nutritional needs as well as their taste, is really important in helping them to make a quicker recovery. We’re offering patients a much wider range of main meals, hot breakfasts, snacks and light bites out of hours.”
Wiltshire PCT led the way in spending the most (£22.31) followed by Kirklees PCT (£19.81), University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust (£17.46) and Cumbria Teaching PCT (£17.85).
The figures were disclosed just after a report by the independent Future Forum warned NHS nurses were lacking in compassion and basic skills.
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, claimed health bosses had priorities other than food.
She said: “Sadly, catering is not seen as a priority by the NHS, but it’s a false economy.”
Government buying standards include criteria to reduce salt, fat and sugar content and increase the amount of fruit, vegetables, fibre and oily fish on offer, the Department of Health (DoH) said.
It pointed out that the amount of money hospitals spend on food had gone up over the past five years, with the average at £6.53 per patient per day in 2005-06, compared to £8.58 in 2010-11.
Health Minister Simon Burns said: “All patients deserve basic standards of care when they are in hospital and good food is one of them.
“We have set binding standards for good hydration and nutrition as part of a hospital’s registration with the regulator.”