With just three months to go before the compulsory introduction of the Government's new school food standards, local authorities are working hard to ensure they have everything in place to serve healthy food to pupils.
Behind the scenes, the School Food Trust (SFT), set up last year by the Government as an independent body, is helping to facilitate the improvement to school meals. This month it will publish a new guide to help schools, caterers, pupils and parents prepare themselves for the introduction of the new food and nutritional standards (see pages 28 and 30) that were announced by the Government three weeks ago. Further food-based standards will be introduced in 2008 and 2009.
Judy Hargadon, newly appointed chief executive of the SFT, has spent many years leading major change initiatives - most recently as a director of New Ways of Working in the NHS Modernisation Agency. But, she says, it's her experience as a parent and school governor that's proving to be most important in her new role, which she stepped into on
Her intention is "to create a situation where children will want to eat better food, as well as create a situation to enable people to supply better food". However, while suppliers of school meals - be they local authority organisations, contract caterers or in-house caterers - generally welcome the nutritional standards, believing them to be necessary to reverse the downward trend in children's diets, they're concerned that not enough money and time are being allocated to what amounts to a major overhaul of the entire school meals service.
On the money front, the Government has given £220m to the school meals service, which, says the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), is not enough to cover the cost of improving the quality of ingredients and increased number of meals cooked from scratch, both of which require additional training and labour as well as new equipment.
The financial straitjacket is considered so tight by some operators that local authorities in Kent, Berkshire and Sheffield have had
difficulty attracting bidders for contracts.
"The money has been allocated over three years," says Hargadon. "In the first year, each school has received an allocation related to the number of pupils and the remainder has gone to local authorities to improve the school meal infrastructure." She explains that the £220m is intended to provide a sustainable school meals service for the future. "The key is to get increased uptake so that the money it costs to deliver the service is spread across more customers."
The funding of the SFT will be met by £15m from the Department for Education and Skills, which is being spent on employing a core staff of 25 to 30 to develop and run programmes to help improve the uptake of school food. A 16-strong board of members (see panel) is steering the work of the SFT. An additional £45m is being provided by the Big Lottery Fund, but as yet the money hasn't been allocated.
As to the criticism that the new guidelines were published less than four months before the proposed deadline, Hargadon says caterers have had plenty of time to prepare themselves for the changes.
"Jamie Oliver brought the issue to a head 18 months ago and the Government has indicated its concerns since then," she says. "It was always highly likely that it was going to follow its concerns with set recommendations. Lots of schools and caterers already have the changes in place and have worked their way through them, showing that serving healthy food works in the end. Those who have been caught out are those who have sat back and done nothing."
Hargadon recognises that acceptance of healthy menus by pupils won't happen overnight, and recommends schools manage the changes by adopting a whole-school approach and involving parents. "We've got to get the children excited, but we've all got to move forward together," she says.
She also believes the enormity of the task ahead will require the life of the SFT to be extended beyond the three years for which it has been funded. "It was set up in a way to seek more funds to continue working and we anticipate that will be the case as we don't expect our job to have been completed within the next two years," she says.
A key issue is the training and development of school cooks, which is being initiated through work with the training and development agency People 1st. "Better skills undoubtedly lead to better food," says Hargadon. Also important is operating a lunch service that's not too prescriptive.
"Choice is important," she says. "A good range of items recognises that not everybody likes every food. If food is tasty and nice, then children will buy it."
In answer to concern at the growing black market for sweets in the playground, Hargadon says there have always been entrepreneurial kids. "Certainly if we come across good practice in dealing with this problem, then we will share this information with everyone. Ultimately, though, if children fill up with good food, then they're less likely to buy the unhealthy stuff in the playground."
It appears there are wide discrepancies among local authorities in their readiness to serve healthy food to pupils.
Kevin McKay, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association, says the national picture is fragmented. "I believe about 85% of primary schools are probably already complying with the standards, and most will be there by September," he says. "But there are still some areas to deal with, such as the requirement for bread to be available at every meal, as this obviously has a cost implication. Secondary schools are a more difficult area because of the cafeteria systems usually on offer, and there may well be only 45% of schools complying with the standards by the start of the new term.
"I would like to see more of an ongoing debate on how we're going to get our children to eat more healthily. Do we take the Jamie Oliver approach and purée down vegetables and then get the children to eat them by hiding them in all sorts of different sauces and dishes? Or do we - as I think we should - take the educative approach and teach the children about different vegetables, where they come from and why they're good for us. It's no good us just making pizzas more healthy, as children won't be able to distinguish between a healthy and an unhealthy pizza."
In Nottinghamshire, where McKay is the catering manager, he expects all the schools for which he's responsible - 320 primaries and 30 secondaries - to be compliant with the food standards by September. "The more difficult area is going to be meeting the nutritional requirements in two or three years' time, particularly in senior schools where there's more choice and it's harder to get an individual pupil to choose a nutritionally balanced meal."
Suffolk and Lancashire also report that the nutritional standards are going to be a bigger challenge for caterers than the food standards. In particular, getting the right levels of zinc and folic acid across a multi-choice menu is going to be difficult.
In order to meet the new regulations, Suffolk County Catering , which provides meals for 350 schools in the county, has introduced a three-day training session for all the heads of kitchens in high schools; while in Devon, a Fresh Start campaign, which advocates locally sourced ingredients, shape-free products and home-cooked dishes, has helped ensure that the 346 schools that Devon Direct Services caters for will be ready for the September deadline.
In Surrey, where the direct catering organisation, Surrey Commercial Services, provides meals to 80% of the county's schools, the food in the 344 primaries it serves will meet the new standards - but at a price.
"We'll be using the extra money from the
Government to increase our food cost per meal by 5p in primary schools, but we're still having to raise the price of lunches from £1.50 to £1.60 to cover extra training and staffing," says Beverley Baker, head of Surrey Commercial Services. "Considering a piece of fruit costs 15p, the extra 5p from Government hardly makes a dent. We're just hoping the parents will pay the extra and that we don't lose any business."
So far, Surrey has been able to maintain its uptake of school meals in the primary sector, but has lost about 10% of business in secondary schools - a situation that's generally the reverse of what's happening nationally. And it's in the secondary sector in Surrey where there's still work to be done.
"By September we'll be working towards the standard for the meal of the day, and will have removed carbonated drinks and salty savoury snacks, replacing them with fruit smoothies and dried fruit combinations," says Baker. "Regarding the rest of the offer, we're working towards the standard gradually as customer acceptability develops."
THE SCHOOL FOOD TRUST
Chief executive Judy Hargadon
The 16-member board of the School Food Trust is chaired by Dame Suzi Leather, who was founding deputy chair of the UK Food Standards Agency. Other members include Beverley Baker, head of commercial services for Surrey County Council; Paul Kelly, group corporate affairs director for Compass Group; Carmel McConnell, founder of Magic Breakfast, a child nutrition charity that provides free breakfasts and nutrition education to primary schools; Jeanette Orrey, former catering manager at St Peter's School, East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, and now school policy adviser at the Soil Association; Rob Rees, former chef and restaurateur and board member of Taste of the West; Sheila Walker, head of catering services at Birmingham City Council, and Ian Wasson, general manager of Devon Direct Services.
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