NHS hospitals are spending as little as £2.57 to feed and water patients a day - or 86 pence 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.
According to figures submitted to the 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.
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 told the Daily Telegraph that health bosses had priorities other than food.
Saying it was “vitally important” patients got a balanced diet, 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.
Waste was also going down, from an average of 8.9% in 2005-06 to 5.9% in 2010-11.
A spokesman for Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust, however, said the trust had submitted the wrong data to the information centre and the actual figure was £8.46 per patient per day.
Paul Hatcher, the trust’s director of estates and facilities, said: “Unlike other trusts the figure represents only the cost of ingredients, and not the total spent on sourcing, preparing, cooking and serving food and drink. If those costs are included our figure is £8.46 per patient, per day.
“The last reports from the Patient Experience Action Teams rated patient food at all three of our hospitals as ‘excellent’, and in the last national inpatient survey our trust was rated by patients as being fractionally outside the top 20% in the country for the standard of food.“
In response to the findings, 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.
“Last week, the Prime Minister also announced measures to give NHS staff the time to check that patients are comfortable, properly fed and hydrated, and are treated with dignity and respect.
“The amount of money hospitals are spending on food has gone up over the past five years, and waste is going down, but this rise in the amount spent on food does not necessarily mean better food for patients.
“Many trusts have excellent food and are serving healthy, fresh meals to their patients while staying within budget. These trusts set a precedent for others to follow and the whole NHS should be learning from the best trusts.”