Anne Ledgley is area manager at the London Borough of Newham and oversees the menu at 85 primary and secondary schools as well as a town hall and special needs site. She spoke to Emma White about the pressures of providing appealing meals on a tight budget.
Caterer What are the biggest challenges you face at the moment?
Anne Ledgley The main challenge is to keep the kids interested in using our service and continue to increase the uptake of school meals. We're already compliant with the Government's nutrient-based standards for primary schools [which come into force in September] but need to enhance the iron content of our menus for secondary schools in time for the September 2009 deadline. We also have to cater for children from a wide range of different religious and ethnic backgrounds on a tight budget of 68p for food per meal [due to go up to 70p in April]. And we have to ensure large numbers of children are able to eat in a short space of time.
Caterer What are your plans to increase school meals uptake?
AL It's important that we give the kids a high standard of service and make the environment they eat in as pleasant as possible. We will address the problem of queuing and introduce speed tills so the children are able to easily access good food, eat in a comfortable environment and get back to their lessons.
Caterer How do you ensure meals are nutritionally balanced as well as appealing?
AL We aim to provide a diverse menu selection to reflect the ethnicity of our borough, but within that we have limits on how many times we can repeat protein items and nutrients. We offer healthier versions of children's favourites, such as chicken marinated in herbs and spices to enhance the iron content, as well as oven-baked potato wedges with salad and a drink. Marketing is very important, as kids are becoming increasingly savvy customers, so we offer meal deals and upgrade options for premium products like smoothies to make the dinners recognisable with what the children are used to from the high street.
Caterer How do you get feedback from the children on food served?
AL We sent our supervisors on marketing courses this year, and they are effectively the eyes and ears of the canteen. They soon tell me what is and isn't working on a menu, which is really important in ensuring we are able to serve the children what they want.
Caterer What does the future hold for school dinners?
AL School meals will change in the future. They will move on. Changes to school meals in the last five years have been enormous and I think for the better. The whole industry has had to rethink the provision of school food, replacing cheap products like Turkey Twizzlers and economy beefburgers with better-quality options. I hope that in the future more children will choose to use the service.