People's History of the NHS

  • 04
  • APR

Upcoming Conference – Institutional Diet: History and Policy

by Jenny Crane

There is a stereotype that Britons love to complain about hospital food, shown for example in the jokes that, ‘If we gave you nice food you may not want to leave!’  The Campaign for Better Hospital Food encourages members of the public to send in photos of food from their stays, and certainly, some of the images provided are not particularly appetising.

There are also however examples of excellence in the service, but nonetheless, the disparate examples above gesture towards the idea that, since the inception of the NHS, hospital food has been discussed and represented in culture – in newspapers, novels, and films.  Hospital food has also long been discussed by patients, families, and staff in relation to their everyday experiences, and indeed we have a fascinating memory about the hierarchy of staff canteens on our website.  There is also a long history of drives to improve hospital diet – indeed there were 21 government-led initiatives in this area between 1992 and 2015, involving £54 million of government spending, and many voluntary and campaign groups work in this area also.

Looking at hospital food is thus a way in to looking at cultural, everyday, and campaigning history.  Last year, I first discussed this with my colleagues Margaret Charleroy, who works on a project about Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000, and Jane Hand, also on this NHS project, over a lunch provided by another type of institution – the University of Warwick.  We all became interested in thinking about the differences between diet in various institutions.  Why, we wondered, were there such discrepancies between spending on hospital food, prisoner food, and school food?  What kind of moral politics are constructed by media and politicians in discussing these comparisons?  And of course, how has institutional diet changed over time, in terms of its provision, cultural representations, and the politics of change?

To discuss these issues, we have co-organised a forthcoming event on 21st April, Diet and Nutrition in Institutions of Care: History & Policy, where we will bring together historical and contemporary experts from the fields of nutrition, diet, and public health to examine control, management, and choice for patients, prisoners, and medical staff in relation to institutional diet.

Our speakers are as follows:

  •  Dr Ian Miller, Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University of Ulster: Eating and Starving to Death in Medical Care: Ethics, Food and Emotions, c.1970s-90
  • Helen Sandwell & Victoria Williams, Food MattersFood Matters Inside & Out: A Project at Wandsworth Reform Prison
  • An-Sofie Vanhouche, University of Brussels: Enjoying Your Prison Meal: Prisoners’ experience with self-perception in the framework of a self-catering project
  • Katharine Jenner, Campaign for Better Hospital FoodHospital Food Can Be Improved Only By Legislation
  • Tenna Jensen, The Saxo Institute, Københavns Universitet: Age Matters: The influence of age perceptions on 20th century institutional meals
  • Philip Shelley, Hospital Caterers AssociationThe Role of the Hospital Caterer
  • Professor Jonathan Reinarz, Institute of Applied Health Research, Director of Medicine Unit, University of Birmingham: Making choices, Constructing Communities: towards a history of hospital food
  • Hugh McNeill, Project Manager, Trussell Trust Coventry Food BankBeyond Foodbanks: Looking at the implications for moving away from the foodbank model
  • Jennifer Jones-Rigby, Health ExchangeBreathe Well… Take Control – a bottom-up, participant-designed, assets-based approach to supporting those with COPD and their carers

The speakers are joined by experts who will bring a historical perspective to the day: Professor Hilary MarlandProfessor Rebecca Earle; Dr Jane Hand and Professor Mathew Thomson, as well as Lucy Vincent from Food Behind Bars.

We are also delighted to have had our event endorsed by Prue Leith, who has campaigned to improve both school and hospital food, as well as working as a chef, caterer, and TV personality.  Prue has said that:

“It’s time we stopped ignoring institutional food. It can’t be right that 40% of hospital patients leave hospital worse nourished than they went in, that prisoners eat their meals in their cells, that nurses eat “on the go” from vending machines. We need to identify the obstacles preventing caterers providing enjoyable nourishing food. I hope this conference will do exactly that and also inspire those with the power to do something about it to act.”

Our event is fully booked, but anyone can email and to be put on our waiting list.  You can also contact us to sign up for information after the event, and please do join in with the LiveTweet on the day, where we’ll be tweeting from @NHSHistory_ and @HistPrisonHealth, and using the tags #warwickfoodconf #nhsfood and #prisonfood.

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