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Are school caterers skimping on portion sizes to cut costs?

20 April 2012

A poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers leads to claims of "very small portions and very limited choice". Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports

School meal caterers have come under fire for cutting portion sizes, following a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

The results of a snap poll of 503 ATL members found that the majority of respondents felt that school meals are good value for money (60.2%) and of a healthy standard (75.9%).

However, additional comments made by the teachers surveyed brought portion sizes into the spotlight, with one primary school teacher claiming that younger children often get "very small portions and very limited choice" adding that those that have packed lunches eat more at lunchtime.

Lynda Mitchell, chair of LACA (formerly the Local Authority Caterers Association), rejected the suggestion that caterers were reducing portion sizes in a bid to cut costs, pointing out that nutritional guidelines prevent such actions. "The menus are devised to provide a nutritionally balanced school meal every day to help children concentrate and perform better in class as well as for their general health and wellbeing," she explained.

"Portion size is determined by the nutritional standards, which prescribe the amount of energy a school meal should provide. If the standards are being followed, then the portion sizes will be right."

Mitchell went on to rubbish the idea that portion control is an effective form of cost cutting, describing the savings that would be achieved as "negligible".

She added: "If cost cutting was needed, operators would be looking at making savings in other areas of higher expenditure, such as labour. They would certainly not be penalising children and young people by trying to save minimal amounts of money in this way."

Vic Laws, catering consultant and founder of AVL Consultancy, agreed with Mitchell and dismissed the suggestion as "ridiculous". He said: "I don't think there has been any deliberate effort by any of the contractors or local authority caterers to cut portion sizes in order to save money. What might be misunderstood is that the servers at the counters tend to give different portion sizes according to their knowledge of what the children want, not to mention the age of the children."

The School Food Trust's (SFT) research and nutrition senior manager, Jo Nicholas, said that the problem of portion size is not new but added that caterers are generally keen to rectify it if approached.

"It's an issue we do hear about from schools now and again - normally when a particular child's appetite means they need a bit more to keep them going until the end of school," she wrote on the Childrensfood blog in response to the poll.

"We find that cooks are fantastic at getting to know their pupils, and they use their expertise to know when certain children need a bit more than the average on the plate."

However, not all operators are convinced. Steve Quinn, managing director of Cucina Restaurants, conceded that if the Government's nutritional guidelines are followed "to the letter" then every school meal would be well-balanced and rich in nutrients.

"But as we know, good nutrition is about what happens in reality, not what happens ideally," he said. "For me the main issue is the way in which the guidelines are policed or enforced."

Without effective enforcement, according to Quinn, primary school caterers operating on very tight margins may be tempted to cut costs by using lower-skilled staff, poorer-quality, bought-in ingredients as well as by reducing portion sizes.

"I'm quite prepared to believe that this happens, and that these ATL findings are accurate," he added.

Despite the potential for this temptation, Pabulum's managing director, Nelson Williams, thinks that caterers would be easily caught out. "Parents of primary school children are very much encouraged to see what they're having for a school meal. It's a very transparent process. They'll have either seen the facilities or tried the food for themselves. You'd be found out straight away if you tried to reduce portion sizes to cut costs," he explained.

"Secondary schools are slightly different. Children do have a choice, they purchase with their eyes. You have to market your offer competitively so that it reflects what's going on in the high street. If you reduce portion sizes you risk losing your customers."

SCHOOL FOOD TRUST GUIDANCE ON SCHOOL MEAL PORTION SIZES

We are aware that the appetites and energy requirements of different aged pupils within primary schools can vary considerably and we expect that cooks will use their experience to adjust portion sizes appropriately to ensure that pupils of all ages receive appropriate sized portions.

The nutrient-based standards for school lunches apply to an average school lunch within a menu cycle, and not to the lunches provided to individual pupils. Therefore, average portion sizes can be entered into the nutrient analysis, and these portion sizes can be increased or reduced for older or younger pupils as appropriate without affecting the nutrient content of an average school lunch.

www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk/the-standards

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