By Rosalind Mullen
The charity Cooks in Schools, launched to give extra training to school cooks and to lobby for larger budgets, is facing a "huge challenge", according to River Café co-founder and chef Rose Gray.
Talking after her shift at the Hammersmith restaurant, Gray said she and a team of experts, including nutritionists and parents, were still in the process of setting up the charity, which will initially focus on London schools.
"We are ambitious, but it won't happen overnight. We will pick one or maybe two infant schools to start with, but we have to lobby for the assistance of the head teachers."
Gray said the aim of the charity was to raise funds to send school kitchen staff on training courses. In addition, the experts will help to devise healthy menus and persuade the decision-makers to spend more than on the usual contract.
"We will lobby for a higher spend on ingredients, which varies from school to school - from 35p per meal to 68p," Gray said.
She added that better use could be made of the £1.45-£1.65 a day that each child spends on lunch. Instead of expenditure on transporting and purchasing pre-prepared foods, the money should be used on ingredients and staff instead.
Gray admitted that she was disappointed by the extent of the problems in school kitchens. "I haven't walked into one yet that has a dishwasher. The plates don't even get sterilised. In fact they don't even have plates - they have trays. It's disgraceful."
The charity's longer-term goal is to raise the profile of school cooking so that eventually well-trained catering students will aim for head-chef positions in schools as well as high-street outlets.
"It could be a rewarding job," Gray said. "With more educational focus on how food is grown and harvested, the school cook could become an important member of the teaching team." One of the first money-raising events will be a dinner at the River Café.
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Compass problems started at school
By Rosalind Mullen and Ben Walker
Compass Group's profit warning last month underlined the turmoil that contractors are experiencing in the state school meals sector.
One reason for the catering giant's expected £30m shortfall in operating profits was education division Scolarest's poor performance at a number of LEA contracts. Margins were being pushed down because of increased labour costs and low take-up.
Scolarest has been beset by complaints about poor-quality food and service in the London boroughs of Islington, Camden and Lewisham since it won contracts in 2002. A Camden Council spokesman said that Scolarest had made improvements this year, but there was still some way to go.
Squeezed margins made Scolarest's largest rival, Initial, put a freeze on chasing state school contracts at the start of the year, concentrating instead on increasing its business at fee-paying schools.
It remains to be seen if Scolarest will choose to renew its more difficult contracts which are up for re-tender from 2005. Earlier this year, it decided to walk away from a £2.5m-a-year contract in Wandsworth, south London.
Private contractors have criticised the new Code of Practice on Workforce Matters, which ensures that local government workers who transfer to private contractors are paid the same and have access to similar pension schemes. They claim that there is too much risk and red tape involved in transferring pension pots.
But consultant Derek White of Foodservice Consultants argued that schools and LEAs were beating a retreat from contractors, rather than the other way around.
"Contractors are too geared to branding," White said. "The new schools ethos is healthy eating and buying local produce. Contractors may have to review their business plans."
For example, many schools in Bristol now insist that 60% of food has to come from within a 50-mile radius. This creates a purchasing problem for large contractors who make their profits through economies of scale and central purchasing.
Manchester Fayre, the catering arm of Manchester City Council, has launched a new brand called Mo'Flava to encourage healthy eating in secondary schools. Pupils will help nutritionists to develop healthier menu items. New counter layouts, meal deals and food tastings are also on the agenda. To monitor its success, pupils will also be asked to keep food diaries
National School Meals Week takes place between 11 and 15 October. The theme this year is Food 4 Action, which will remind youngsters about exercise as well as healthy eating.
As the campaign to reduce salt in diets gathers momentum, it's worth memorising what the recommended maximums are for children. Remember, it's better for them to have less: 4 to 6 years - 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium); 7 to 10 years - 5g salt a day (2g sodium); 11 and over - 6g salt a day (2.5g sodium). Source: Food Standards Agency.
The Local Authority Caterers Association has confirmed that the national finals of its 2005 School Chef of the Year competition will take place on 26 April at South Trafford College, Manchester. The regional finals take place from October to January. More than 170 contestants have registered - the highest number since the competition started ten years ago.
Sodexho has won a £500,000 five-year contract for the catering, retail and housekeeping services at Bearwood College, an independent day and boarding school in Wokingham, Surrey. Sodexho will caterer for 350 students aged 11-18. Sixth-formers will get a separate facility, Café Six, a new café and lounge area with hot and cold food service, an entertainment system, and pool table.
Sodexho has introduced a new menu at Sawston Village College near Cambridge, following a ban by the principal on fast food. The new healthy menu is put in place four out of five days a week. Carbonated drinks have been stopped completely, and home-baked snacks have been introduced to replace chocolate. But on "Fast Food Friday" the 1,000 pupils can choose chips, pizza, and burgers, along with the normal healthy options. Catering manager Melissa Cotterell explained: "This seems to have made the transition from junk food to healthy options easier."
Kenilworth-based Hopkinson Catering is launching a competition for pupils to design a board game with a fresh food and healthy eating theme. Full details of the competition are being sent to 5,000 schools. Pupils will have to come up with an idea for a board game that has an educational focus on food. Hopkinson will give the winning school a cash prize of £5,000, plus a range of prizes for runners-up.