The views of caterers and nutritionists on the subject of school meals are forever being aired, but one part of the service is often ignored: the people actually eating the food.
Schoolchildren have been voting with their feet in the past couple of years as take-up of secondary school meals has plummeted, so to find out what our kids really want, catering consultancy the Litmus Partnership undertook a survey of 7,000 youngsters.
HOW THE SURVEY WAS CONDUCTED
The survey was conducted using what is known as "gap" techniques.
Finding out how satisfied individuals are with a given issue is one way of determining overall ratings; but the method used by Litmus compares satisfaction levels with a measure of how important a certain issue is to the respondent.
In other words, a child might give a mark of 10 for a high level of satisfaction with the healthy food on offer in a canteen, but that could be because they rated this factor only one out of 10 for importance.
It's the gap between the two scores that really counts and determines where caterers should be directing their energies - which, as the results show, certainly wouldn't be towards healthier eating.
THE SATISFACTION GAP
The difference between importance and satisfaction:
|Value for money||3.6||3rd|
|Quality and taste of cooked food||2.4||2nd|
|Standard of hygiene||2.3||1st|
|Appropriate portion sizes||2.1||6th|
|Appearance of the food||1.9||8th|
|Positive attitude of kitchen/ serving staff||1.8||4th|
|Display of daily/weekly menus||1.5||10th|
|Range of healthy options||1.4||7th|
|Fresh fruit is always available||1.2||9th|
|Variety of specialised diets||1.0||11th|
Source: Litmus Partnership
RATING THE FACTORS
In terms of what students value, hygiene is most important, followed by the quality and taste of cooked food; value for money; the attitude of serving staff; the choice and range of options; the right portion sizes; and the range of healthy options.
The fact that healthy options are exercising so many caterers matters not a jot to children, although, arguably, nutritionists can take heart from the fact that at least healthy eating doesn't come bottom of the pile. Four factors were ranked lower than the desire for healthy food - appearance of the meals among them.
So, how are caterers delivering on this? Well, the part of the service that students are most satisfied with is healthy eating. That could be seen as a positive outcome, although another way of looking at it is that children don't care about the extent to which the food available is good for them.
The next item on the list is the amount of fresh fruit available - caterers are seen to be supplying enough of this. There is good hygiene in school dining halls, according to students, and the serving staff also have the right attitude. So big ticks all round for on-the-ground delivery of the service.
Black marks go to value for money, the way the daily or weekly menus are displayed, and the way the food looks.
MIND THE GAP
The crucial element of the survey is the gap between the two measures. For each factor, comparing satisfaction levels and relative importance determines how well school meals caterers are performing - the extent to which they are providing what their customers want.
The biggest gap - the area in which caterers are most out-of-step with what children want - appears to be in the value for money provided by the service. This is followed by the taste and quality of the cooked food; the standards of hygiene; and the choice and range of food.
It suggests that a re-examination of core issues around pricing, choice and cooking is required.
The Litmus Partnership is an independent catering and facilities management consultancy. More than 7,000 pupils aged 11-18 were canvassed for the research.
WHAT THE STUDENTS SAID
- "If the canteen was a food establishment, I would not use it. The variety of food is poor, and I feel the hygiene is also very poor."
- "The catering has greatly improved this term. The portion sizes are a real issue, as I often find myself hungry after a meal despite clearing my plate."
- "The prices are too high. If you want to encourage people to eat healthily, then the price of healthy foods should be cheaper than the prices of fatty."
- "I would never go in the canteen for breakfast because toast and bacon isn't a healthy start to the day. Fruit and cereal is healthy for people to eat."
- "School food has got better since new menus are available. Staff are polite. Good choice of food."
- "Please, please, please, I am actually begging you; for poor students like me this must be said. I need sugar; I need food that actually tastes of something. I am not an obese child; I don't need you to force health rubbish down my gullet. I want Coke to wash down my pizza and chips and top it off with a Mars bar. I am sick of your flavourless crap."