Last week the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) held an "emergency summit" at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, London. Its central aim? To tell the Government its breakneck reform of secondary school meals looks certain to kill the struggling service off.
The opening speech of LACA chairman Neil Porter summed up the concerns nicely. "Is there any benefit in selling healthier school meals to fewer children?" he asked.
LACA claims total coverage of 17,200 of the 20,000 primary schools in England and 1,900 of the 2,300 secondary schools, with its members serving more than 2,500,000 school dinners a day.
Its views may be hard to swallow for ministers itching to "sign off" the school dinners project forced on them after Jamie's School Dinners in 2005, but LACA's members remain worried about the stricter food standards due to come into force at secondary schools across England in September.
Decline in uptake
LACA research ahead of the summit found that not only were nearly two-thirds of members likely to miss the September deadline for the new nutrient standards, but almost 80% believed their introduction would hasten the decline in secondary school meal uptake, which, according to the School Food Trust (SFT), slipped 0.5% last year to a historic low of 37.2%.
Porter called for compromise, with nutrient-based standards applied to only the main meal of the day and existing less stringent standards used for all other food.
To boost school dinner uptake, he also wants the Government to re-evaluate the level at which children are entitled to free school meals, as about half of children classed as living in poverty in England do not qualify at present and he called for more direct funding past 2011.
The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have offered support for LACA's view, but Labour MP Frank Dobson - turning LACA's own research on its head during a question-and-answer session - asked delegates just what was so difficult about meeting the nutrient standards, when a third of survey respondents said it could be done.
Private contractors, despite LACA membership in many cases, also appear to be distancing themselves from the doom-and-gloom message. Compass Group's Chartwells, which, as Scolarest, received a very public dressing down from Jamie Oliver during his campaign, issued a statement on the day of the summit, saying: "The Chartwells experience to date shows that if you engage with students, parents, head teachers, teachers and governors, then the standards can be achieved whilst still providing food that students will eat."
This echoed the comments of Jane Bristow, managing director of Sodexo Education, who, in an interview with Caterer in January, rubbished claims that nutrient standards would destroy the secondary school service.
And it's not just large private firms with plenty of resources that are on course to meet the new rules. Steve Quinn, managing director of Cucina, a school caterer that, with wins at Fixton Girls High School in Manchester and St Albans High School, Hertfordshire, now has 26 contracts, is confident of being fully compliant. "The short answer to 'Can the standards be achieved at secondary?' is yes. It's about your mindset," he said.
Quinn originally tried employing a nutritionist, but without success, so he opted for one of the nutritional analysis packages recommended by the SFT, in this case, Relish. The caterer's primary school menus are, as dictated by law, already compliant, and as these are, in effect, cut-down versions of Cucina's secondary offer, Quinn is confident and will not pass the cost of the work on to clients.
"I believe reskilling school chefs and using improved ingredients would have much more impact than the nutritional standards ever can," he said.
Others think LACA is fighting the wrong battle. "As a parent, I want to see my children protected from nutritionally poor food," said Jackie Schneider, chairman of Merton Parents for Better Food in Schools. "Talk to secondary school students and the biggest complaints you will hear are about dirty tables, substandard canteens, long, long queues, teachers pushing in, food running out, and expensive prices compared to supermarkets."
Jeanette Orrery, school meals policy adviser to the Soil Association, was sympathetic to LACA's view, but warned: "If we don't stop being negative, we're definitely going to lose the service, as parents will think it rubbish and opt for packed lunches instead."
"Yes, it's a work in progress, and yes, it's tougher to do at secondary level, but we can't hide behind a can't-do attitude," she added.
But with 85% of LACA members dependent on subsidies, the question of whether graft and positivity will be enough remains unanswered.
By Chris Druce
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Published by: The Caterer