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Education month: School meal caterers feel the pinch

03 July 2008

Under pressure from food price inflation, Government guidelines and unprecedented public scrutiny, school meals caterers are feeling the pinch. Over the next four issues, Caterer focuses on the education sector, beginning with a look at the results of our survey of school meal providers

Our four weeks of education coverage comes at a good time. We've just completed exclusive research on the state of food provision in schools. Then last week an open letter from the Soil Association arrived on our desks, requesting that the Government hand over £291.5m towards school meals and demanding that 4,025 new school kitchens are built by 2011.

Things seem to be coming to the boil just as food inflation is hitting home. So far, primary schools have been performing much better in terms of meal take-up than those at secondary level. But with meal prices moving towards £2 the question is whether this positive performance can be maintained. Many believe parents will be less willing to pay over this level, and we examine this situation in the coming pages.

In our next issue we look at secondary food provision, as the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) meets for its annual conference. This is followed by an article on school meals in Finland, examining how the provision works so well over there.

In the 17 July issue we highlight the way catering companies are meeting the needs of the price-conscious but increasingly brand-aware university student, with a focus on Harrison Catering and how it has managed to adapt to the needs of this sector.

In the fourth and final week we cover children's attractions of an educational bent, such as London Zoo and the Eden Project. A Soil Association report two years ago slammed the catering at many museums and theme-park sites, and Madame Tussauds has recently taken on food consultant Annabel Karmel to improve the quality of its dining as a consequence.

Karmel is also working with Asquith Day Nurseries, but few primary and secondary schools have the financial muscle for such assistance. Caterers and schools will need to work out ways of providing meals at a reasonable price without the luxury of a consultant to help them. And all the while they have to adhere to the nutritional guidelines that come into force in primary schools this autumn. You can see why Ian El-Mokadem, managing director of Compass Group UK & Ireland, has pulled out of a few contracts in the past few years.

Which brings us back to that Soil Association letter. On the one hand it's tempting to dismiss the wording as overdramatic, especially in a sector that's in so much flux. Yet the letter has the backing of LACA, and Sandra Russell, its chair, commented last week: "If [the current situation] continues without resolution, then we believe that many will be considering the future of their service."

The Soil Association might be seen as setting unrealistically high food standards by some, but its suggestion that the Government should help out financially with school meals would at least resolve the current funding crisis.

A student's view

Catherine Belton, aged 16, of Rosebery School in Epsom, Surrey, explains what the changes in meals provision have meant for her…

For someone whose primary school memories include Turkey Twizzlers, fourth helpings and being able to have just the cream from the fruit salad if you weren't a fan of the fruit part, the last few years have been a turning point for me.

Gone are the Slush Puppy machine, the bags of crisps and the chocolate bars. Instead we have fajitas, fruit juice and salads, and three years on from Jamie Oliver I have to admit that even now I, along with most of my friends, still blame the man for pretty much everything we dislike about our school canteen.

You have a craving for cola in the middle of the afternoon and are met by a vending machine filled with bottled water. "Well that's down to Jamie, isn't it?" is what people tend to say. The chocolate chips in our cookies have been replaced by hard raisins - thanks, Jamie.

The bizarre Government ruling that cakes, biscuits and other unhealthy items may only be bought at break and not lunchtime, despite the fact that the two are only an hour apart, inspires the most cursing of all.

There's no denying that the dinners are far better than they used to be, but sometimes things are a long way from perfect. The system of having a self-service canteen means that fruit, though always available, is often in bad condition, as it is left uneaten by students to disintegrate. Vegetarian options are often in short supply, as so many meat-eating students choose food such as marguerita pizza and cheese paninis rather than pick the unappealing-looking meat options.

Money is another factor. As students are paying at a till each day, unlike in primary schools, they are far more conscious of prices. Complaints do lead to cheaper food being provided, but this then creates issues over quality and taste. Money, again, influenced our decision over having organic and Fairtrade items. It was a great, modern idea at the time, but came with a higher price tag, and it's suddenly less attractive.

Another important element of the new rules is the effect of new nutritional guidelines. Calorific values become a compulsory part of the packaging of all school foods in September, and I feel concerned. I'm not saying that my school is rife with anorexia, but in an all-girls school there is a focus on appearance, weight and, therefore, dieting. Of course childhood obesity is a concern, but other eating disorders are, too, especially for the secondary school age group. The fact that young people will be able to calculate exactly what they're consuming inside, as well as outside, school increases the chances of such disorders developing.

I have to admit, however, that the changes Jamie brought about were much needed. The current system isn't terrible but the real benefits will be seen in a few years' time among those who have had "Jamie's school dinners" from the beginning and have good, healthy practices instilled in them. These children will, hopefully, seek out fruit to eat, will complain that there isn't enough salad in the wraps, or that there's so much choice they never know what to have. But until then I'm afraid to say Jamie's influence is less obvious, and will remain so for a long time to come.

Education catering survey

Results from the Caterer education survey back up Sandra Russell's recent view at LACA that operators in the education sector are not far from financial crisis. Our exclusive survey, conducted in June, found that 78% of caterers believed the viability of school meals contracts was under pressure from recent food inflation.

Five education authorities have now put a £2 price on a school meal, according to our survey, as costs increase, with more than a third charging between £1.65 and £1.99. Nearly 20% charge less than £1.64, but two-thirds of those questioned considered it either "very likely" or "fairly likely" that they will charge more than £2 in future.

In this scenario, organic food is hardly top of most people's priority list, as our research demonstrated. If quality food was a consideration once, it is much less likely to be so in the current cost squeeze. Most think that having organic food on the menu is "not very important", while just 7% believe that organic food matters very much. In terms of how that reflects in practical terms on school menus, only one-third of schools offer an organic option more than 10% of the time, and only in 2% of cases do menus have more organic than non-organic dishes.

However, food sourced from nearby producers and farms seems to have more appeal. Three-quarters of respondents to our survey thought that use of local produce was "very important" or "fairly important". Perhaps children and teachers are more moved by the idea of food grown and produced near by.

Despite all the difficulties of the past few years, however, most people think that the changes have been for the better. According to our research, only 22% of people believe that the Jamie Oliver campaign did more bad than good. And most see it as an ongoing piece of work, with 88% saying that there is more work to do in bringing head teachers on side.

Despite the hassle, the unreasonable demands on caterers to provide better food at the same price, and children's unwillingness to eat better food, there appears to be a desire to keep improving that will hearten many.

Respondents to our survey came from a range of positions in education catering, mostly heads of department, with some chief executives and directors, chefs, unit managers, general managers and people working in sales and marketing. A third of respondents came from organisations with a turnover of more than £5m.

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