The head of one of the UK's largest school dinner caterers has rubbished claims that stricter food rules will bring about the collapse of the secondary school meals system.
Many caterers fear that new nutrient-based standards, due to launch in secondary schools in England this September, will exacerbate the ongoing decline in the secondary school meals market, which saw uptake fall to a new low of 37.2% last year, threatening the commercial future of the service.
But Jane Bristow, managing director of Sodexo Education, which feeds children at 740 schools across the UK and Ireland, insisted that healthy school meals were both achievable and commercially viable.
Sodexo was an early adopter of the Government's new food standards, and Bristow said the battle for school children's stomachs was now being won, with a new generation of children not addicted to junk food heading into secondary schools.
"Our primary school children who have had food standards in place since 2006] are getting older and coming through the system," said Bristow. "With the current year-seven (first year of secondary school) intake we're really starting to see this. The healthy meals culture is working its way through."
Despite this progress, Bristow said that there were a number of measures that would help boost take-up of healthy meals. These include encouraging children to stay on site, introducing electronic card systems for payment and introducing more creative time-tabling to avoid lunch-break bottle necks.
Although nutrient-based standards have been in force at primary schools in England since last September, many caterers fear the start of the stricter rules at secondary schools this autumn, will lead to a further fall in sales as pupils boycott healthy meals and head off-site to stock up on junk food.
By Chris Druce
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