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Contract catering – Metropolitan Police

27 September 2007 by

Catering for a standard office can be hard enough, but when the organisation is 52,000 people strong, spread all over London, on duty 24/7 and working for long periods in the field, it becomes a different matter. Tom Vaughan reports on the catering facilities at the Metropolitan Police Service

Police at this year's Notting Hill Carnival. The Metropolitan Police Service Catering Services' Operational Feeding arm laid on standpipes backed up by 3,000 bottles of water to make sure officers didn't dehydrate in the heat

At London's West End Central police station the last of the night shift and the first of the morning bobbies are just finishing off their "999 breakfasts". It's 8.45am and Diane Arthur, senior catering manager at the station, has had her team in since 6am to start the day's work.

The six women make up less than 1% of the staff of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Catering Services, the branch responsible for feeding every employee and guest of the MPS, from detained persons to visiting royalty.

The morning has been a welcome respite for Arthur. The week before, she was one of 40 staff helping to dish up 2,000 meals a day for officers involved in Operation Harwood, which was policing the peace camp at Heathrow. Then, yesterday, the MPS had undertaken a large immigration raid, filling every cell in the station with detainees and every chair in the 60-seat canteen with officers refuelling from a hard morning's work. "There wasn't a spare seat in the house," she says. "Loads and loads of hungry officers."

Today is easier, and she chats as her team prepares the jerk chicken, cottage pie and breaded lamb cutlets that will be the backbone of the lunch menu. Behind her, officers saunter in and out of the canteen, grabbing a hearty eat when they can.

As Napoleon is reputed to have said, an army marches on its stomach - but so does a police force. The principal objective of the MPS Catering Services (MPSCS) is to ensure the 52,000 stomachs employed by the force are full. And this can require degrees of planning and response rivalling swift police action.

Imagine the situation on 7 July 2005 when, halfway through an operation by the MPSCS to supply 150,000 meals to officers at the G8 summit in Edinburgh, four separate bombs went off in London.

Thousands of police officers worked tirelessly at the scene of the bombings, but less recognised was the emergency response the catering unit gave. Simultaneously to the G8, plans were immediately put in place to provide 85,000 meals to the thirsty, hungry and exhausted members of the police force working at the explosion sites.

Currently, with 670 full-time staff across 91 buildings, only three of which are contracted out, the MPSCS is committed to supplying every meal consumed on Metropolitan Police premises. The three main strings of the service involve providing for: individual police stations large outdoor operations and staff and visitors at administrative offices, such as New Scotland Yard.

In buildings such as Lambeth C3i, the 24-hour call centre, this means that kitchens run through the night, feeding both the night shift workers on the switchboards and the policemen on nearby duty. Senior catering manager in Lambeth, Rose Powderley, talks of officers popping in during the early hours, hungry after policing the 2am clubs as they empty.

Downstairs is Central Command and Control, the new multimillion-pound nerve centre of London policing, bigger and more sophisticated than any in Europe, from which the Notting Hill Carnival was recently kept under meticulous surveillance.

The cells beneath were once one of the largest holding areas for detainees and persons awaiting trial in London. Now they go largely unused. Those detained at Her Majesty's pleasure have a right to be fed, and MPSCS has a budget to ensure this happens.

Supergrasses

Depending on the kitchen at the site, these meals can be either reheated frozen options or the same menu choice as the officers. Do detained people tend to be fussy? "No," says Peter Peirce, director of catering services at MPS. "But we have had supergrasses held in the cells before for long periods of time. Because they've been helping us out, we've had to dash out and get a fillet steak or what-have-you."

Hygiene, explains Powderley, is incredibly strict in MPS kitchens. Staff have to renew their health and safety certificates every two years, which, for chefs, is a full BSc level 6 diploma. The worst thing imaginable, she suggests, would be scores of officers falling sick before a major operation.

At New Scotland Yard, the administrative headquarters of the MPS on London's Victoria Embankment, hygiene is equally important. Not only because of the administrative muscle in the building, but because over the years it has played host to senior Government figures and members of the Royal Family in its various banqueting rooms, with food cooked by MPSCS chefs.

The origin of the division was apparently in the 1968 Grosvenor Riots in London, when thousands of anti-Vietnam war protestors rallied outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, but were successfully kept at bay by the MPS. When the home secretary came to commend the officers, he asked them how they were. "Tired and very hungry" was the response.

Over the years operational feeding has become increasingly sophisticated, says McCarthy. Nowadays, schools or Territorial Army halls are occupied, a marquee is often erected and portable toilets and mobile kitchens are brought in, with all food cooked fresh on site.

Before the Tour de France started in London in July, Operational Feeding had to provide 800 breakfasts at 4am to officers in Blackheath TA hall, a job that required 20 staff. At this year's Notting Hill Carnival, concerned by the heat, McCarthy had water pipes installed at strategic points behind police lines to ensure that officers didn't dehydrate. Worried that this system might prove faulty, he also ordered 3,000 bottles of water.

Buildings such as Buckingham Gate and Kerry Way, near Wembley, have huge mess halls inside them, able to seat 600 officers at once, served by 12 staff, to avoid the cost of erecting a temporary site if operations are near by.

On call 24/7, Operational Feeding has to react at the drop of a hat to emergencies. The 7 July bombings are a perfect example of its quick reaction times. Two emergency kitchen vans - named T-Pot 1 and T-Pot 2 - were sent immediately to the scene of the explosions, where they served sandwiches, pasties, drinks and snacks until a bigger plan was put in place.

The first major response was to mobilise Buckingham Gate so hungry officers could be bussed in. Mobile units were then set up in places such as the mortuary in Aldgate, each run by a senior catering manager pulled from a permanent unit. To cope with these situations, Buckingham Gate has a few thousand frozen meals set aside as cover until the time when new supplies can be brought in. In total, only 15 extra temporary staff were needed to help man the mobile units.

Staff are moved around within the service, partly to save costs and make use of their experience, but also partly due to the administrative technicalities of recruiting new staff. The wider issue of staffing poses one of the biggest problems for the catering service. Every employee of the MPS has to have a security check run on them, whether they are police officers, traffic wardens or potwashers. This process can take days, sometimes weeks, by which time prospective kitchen hands or catering managers might have found a new job.

Autonomy

Financially, the budgeting for MPSCS is broken down into its various components: operational feeding, detained people, conference facilities, and normal catering. Each has a budget, and each is given a large degree of autonomy. For example, at West End Central, the training and the facilities are provided, the rest is under Arthur's control. The total turnover from catering operations is near the £10m mark, all of which goes back into the MPS.

The policeman's continued love for his fried breakfast suggests a catering option stuck in the past. But this is not so halal, vegetarian, kosher and numerous ethnic options are now available in both permanent and mobile units, reflecting the multicultural make-up of London and the MPS in the 21st century.

Along with most of London's infrastructure, the MPS has the Olympics looming on its horizon. Plans are already being formed by the MPSCS for the huge police operation that will be in place for the 2012 games, and Peirce has budgeted an extra £2m to cover the costs of feeding the officers.

The games are a big consideration, says Peirce, but they are just another challenge in the ongoing commitment to policing the capital - and the catering services' ongoing commitment to ensuring police officers go to work on a full stomach.

Operation Harwood

Menu

Breakfast

  • Fried egg, back bacon, two sausages, baked beans, bubble and squeak
  • Vegetarian 1/4lb burger, vegetarian sausage, baked beans
  • Poached haddock and poached egg
  • Two cereals, half-pint of milk, fresh fruit or grapefruit segments, yogurt and fruit juice

Lunch

  • Roast turkey and stuffing, roast potato, baton carrots
  • Gammon steak in a sweet and sour sauce
  • Vegetarian 1/4lb burger or vegetarian sausage with mushrooms and onion rings
  • Black Forest gÁ¢teau

Meals served

  • Day six 715 breakfast, 777 lunch, 849 dinner
  • Day seven 718 breakfast, 592 lunch, 655 dinner
  • Day eight 913 breakfast, 903 lunch, 954 dinner
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