The first food I ate after giving birth six months ago, was toast and jam. Plain, fairly boring toast, with one of those little sachets of jam that you get in a budget hotel. It is basically flavoured glucose syrup. I got to choose between jam and marmalade, and I chose jam. The NHS tea and toast is a classic. What isn’t talked about is what comes next.
Five days of hospital food followed. Naively, I thought that Bristol, a city which prides itself on its food culture, might have achieved a basic standard of fresh food being available in its hospitals. That wasn’t what I found.
The food was presented in metal take-away containers that can be put straight in the oven. It wasn’t just ready-meal type main meals that were in these containers, but also the vegetables, mashed potato, chips, baked beans and almost all the elements of the lunchtime and main meals.
I could eat some things on the menu but not all, so I was given a cardboard box of meal options so I could choose something for each day that I’d be able to eat. It wasn’t special food, just the same meals as already existed jumbled up in order. When I asked about the food what was really noticeable was that I was talking with someone who didn’t know what was in the boxes, so she couldn’t really help.
It turned out that the cook was on holiday, and the cleaning staff had been left to run the kitchen. This didn’t matter too much, the woman explained, because there wasn’t much cooking involved, all that she had to do was put the boxes in the oven and throw away the left overs. So, even in normal times, there was no-one cooking whose job it was to deal with ingredients. Cleaning, in this context, was almost certainly a more specialised and skilled job.
I might be coming across as a privileged want-to-be food critic, but after several days with no sleep, and a very small new baby to look after, all I wanted was something that would be kind to my digestive system. Simple hearty freshly made soups would have been lovely.
I’d read the ‘First Forty Days’ by Ou, Greevan and Belger and learnt about the ancient Chinese wisdom of zuo yuezi which includes only eating warm nutritious food in the first days after birth, and I had vague notions of trying to put this wisdom into practice. It wasn’t to be. The food arrived in big metal containers, throw-away take away trays that were simply put in the oven at 3pm every day directly from frozen and that would then be available to eat from 5-6.30pm.
I found time difficult to manage in those early days, with doctors stopping by, a baby I didn’t yet know, and news to break to people again and again. The breakfast-lunch-dinner menu is just an indistinct feature of the background of the whole maternity experience, but it should be a supportive one, not an added worry to newly anxious parents. I know one new mother who after giving birth had to trek to the neo-natal ward every day to visit her critically ill baby. When she arrived back to her ward and the dining room 10 minutes after the 6.30pm dinner cut off, she found her meal that she’d gone to significant effort to pre-order, had been thrown in the bin. If there is ever a time when the reassurance of a good meal is needed, regardless of ancient Chinese wisdom, it is in the days after giving birth, be that at home, or in hospital.
A frozen metal box of baked beans in a pretty unappetising sight. Although there might be nothing ‘wrong’ with some of the meals, there is nothing right about them either. I chose five of the twelve cardboard boxes I’d been offered for the days ahead. I hoped some might taste better than they looked and wondered how many I might replace some with things that my partner could bring in. Yet there was nowhere to heat up food on the ward and it was Christmas, so we couldn’t expect much.
There was another option that was mentioned a lot, especially by midwives who were tired of despairing at what was on offer in the kitchen: this was to get take-aways. But take-aways are not a realistic option for people who are stuck in hospital for days, weeks or even months on end.
Take-aways as an alternative is also a way of individualising the problem, shifting the cost onto the patient and privatising the solution. It is a way of distracting from the problem of poor food and creating a division between those who can afford to pay someone less well-off to bring them food to their bedside, and those who need to recur to what has been provided as standard.
There was also a sadness to the ‘dining room’. Hexagonal tables and the large kitchen evoked a time when women perhaps went together from their wards, got lunch at the canteen and sat together in the dining room to eat. If this happened it was probably some time ago. Now, in a post-covid era, the standard of the food, and the attitude towards it, was instead fostering a culture of each-to-their-own deliveroo, behind individual blue curtains.
This seemed like a big waste of food and a big waste of an evidently large kitchen. It was designed for people to chop, slice, grate, boil, steam and roast food. Now all it was being used for was defrosting and disposing of food. It’s true that some fruit was available. But an over-soft satsuma does not really lift the spirits.
Helping women to breastfeed is one of the roles of a maternity ward, but women need to eat well and drink well to breastfeed successfully. There was a ‘drugs trolley’ that the midwives brought round the wards several times a day. This was well-stocked, replete with everything from paracetamol to highly specialised and personalised medication, but there was nothing equivalent in terms of food.
If this is the standard of food available to new mothers at St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol, a University associated hospital that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of research and practice related to birth and maternal care, in a city that has a very strong food awareness, culture and even an award for being a Gold Sustainable Food City, the standard is unlikely to be significantly higher elsewhere. We heard that down the road at Southmead Hospital there was also a lack of freshly prepared food and friends complained of ‘potatoes with potatoes’ being served for dinner.
This is likely to be the result of large contracts being awarded on the basis of cost only and in the context of a cash strapped health system. It would make sense though, if healthy Mums and babies are the top priority, to invest in more than throw away food and equip the kitchen at least as well as the drugs trolley.