New figures show that some British hospitals are spending as little as £2.57 daily on food and drink for each patient, working out at 86 pence a meal.
Statistics compiled by the NHS Information Centre reveal large budget disparities, with some trusts spending more than £20 a day on each patient, while others commit barely a tenth of that.
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 from around 350 primary care trusts, foundation hospitals and other NHS bodies showed that more than 30 hospital trusts spend less than £5 a day on breakfast, lunch and dinner for each patient in their care.
Wiltshire PCT spent the most (£22.31), followed by Kirklees PCT (£19.81), University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust (£17.46) and Cumbria Teaching PCT (£17.85).
Katherine Murphy of campaign group the Patients Association told the Daily Telegraph that patients needed nutritious food.
"It's vitally important that people in hospital get a balanced diet -- otherwise they will have only to stay in hospital longer," she said.
The Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust told the Telegraph its spending figure was so low because of data collection disparities.
Paul Hatcher, its director of estates 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 would be around £8 per patient, per day.?
Health Minister Simon Burns insisted that the amount of money which hospitals spend on food has gone up in the last five years.
He added that others should be learning lessons from the best-performing NHS trusts.