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Healthy eating round table – winning the school meals war in primary schools

08 May 2008

As school meals providers finalise their plans for meeting the Government's new nutritional standards - due to become statutory in primary schools in September - Caterer and Hotelkeeper joined forces with apetito to bring together key stakeholders to discuss the ongoing transformation of primary school lunches. Janet Harmer reports

After several years of flux in the school meals service, combined with a depressing drop in the number of children eating school lunches, a gathering of some of the leading providers of school meals have voiced their optimism for the future.

All the participants in a round table discussion, organised by Caterer and Hotelkeeper and supported by apetito, supplier of frozen ready-meals to schools, said they believed the decline in take-up of primary school meals had been arrested. In fact, in many areas, they said, take-up was now rising.

During the discussions, held at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower Hotel in London, those taking part shared the successes they had had in improving the quality and increasing the take-up of school meals, for children up to the age of 11.

Bill Graney, manager of Harrison Catering Services' school meals contract for Ealing Council, said that as a result of listening to what schools wanted, putting skills back into kitchens, and introducing new catering equipment, the take-up of meals being served in the borough had grown by 3% in the past year. Harrison currently serves 7,000 meals a day to 60 primary and special schools in Ealing.

The discussion group was told that Sodexo Education had taken over the contract for 39 primary schools in another London borough, Richmond, after the previous contractor said that it was not viable. "When we started, the interest in school food was very low and there was a lot of scepticism among head teachers about what we could provide," said Alan Bowley, operations director of Sodexo Education .

"We talked to head teachers and spoke to parents - inviting them into schools for tasting sessions. By demonstrating that the quality of the food we served was high, we gained the confidence of parents and teachers and take-up numbers started to rise rapidly."

Everyone agreed that an enthusiastic and supportive head teacher was a key part of a successful school meals service. "In one school where we have worked in partnership with a very supportive head teacher, the uptake of meals has risen from 33% to 70%," said Tony McKenna, managing director of Cater Link, the food service caterer that has school catering contracts with Camden and Islington councils.

"If the head teacher is not focused on school meals, then it is very difficult to get the rest of the school on board," Graney said.

Beverley Baker, head of commercial services at Surrey County Council, agreed. "The one factor that makes the difference between success and failure in a school's catering operation is having an inspirational head teacher, she said. "Unfortunately, probably only 20% of all head teachers are inspiring, when it comes to school food."

David Shailes, catering procurement manager for Ealing Council, said that the priority for most teachers was to teach and raise educational standards - not to consider the minutiae of school meals.

But Baker felt this was not good enough. "It really should not be too difficult for head teachers to give their support as it is the caterers who do the actual work," she said.

Chris Wainwright, director of communications for the School Food Trust, said the best way to gain the support of head teachers was by getting them to accept that good diets would make children more receptive to learning and ultimately lead to better exam results.

There was a general feeling around the table that Ofsted should be looking more closely at what schools were doing to support the school meals service through food education and, in particular, by providing practical lessons on cookery, growing food and farm visits.

The Food for Life Partnership, operated by the Soil Association in conjunction with the Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust, is a good example of a "whole approach" to food education. Joanna Collins, policy and communications manager for the scheme, said that its programme of transforming school meals was also bringing school communities together. There are now more than 150 schools signed up to the scheme, all of which are working towards achieving 75% unprocessed foods, 50% local foods and 30% organic foods.

Regarding the Government's new nutritional standards, due in place in primary schools by September 2008 and in secondary schools a year later, consultant Julian Edwards said that while most schools were well on the way to achieving the regulations, some were still a long way off - while others might well openly flout the standards. "There is also a certain amount of prohibition going on with the under-counter selling of cakes," he said.

"However, most of the major improvements have already taken place and there is more fresh food coming into school kitchens now than there has ever been," Edwards added. "Every caterer I know is working very hard to achieve the standards, with many employing nutritionists to ensure that they are fully prepared for September."

For school cooks, the new standards have created a lot of fear. "Many cooks don't like having to comply with the standards because they feel their flair has been constrained," said consultant nutritionist Georgina Ayin. "There is also concern about the cost of carrying out nutritional analysis, whether by using software packages or by taking on a nutritionist."

There was concern that those schools that had opted out of a local authority catering contract and/or which and ran the catering themselves were not making the nutritional standards a priority. "For 80% of schools it will be fine, but the task of carrying out nutritional analysis is not on the agenda of schools who do their own catering," Baker said.

"It is our job at the School Food Trust to bring on board the opted-out schools - otherwise there will be chaos if they do not comply with the standards," Wainwright said. He also pointed out that it was not enough for schools to meet the standards: it was also important that they produced a quality product on a consistent basis. "Quality is a hugely important factor in improving take-up," he said.

Collins believed that a quality service was more likely to exist where local, seasonal and sustainable produce was used. "If they're using local food, the cooks know where the food has come from and it provides an opportunity for pupils to find out more about the origins of the meals they eat," she said.

However, some of the other participants were concerned that it was difficult for school kitchens - especially those that had opted out - to carry out checks on local suppliers. "You know that if you use Brakes or 3663, the quality assurance will be fantastic," Edwards said.

"We're serving 1.4 million meals a year in Ealing, which requires a lot of produce and it is important that we have a guarantee of supplies," Shailes said. "We've spoken to a co-operative of farmers and you would think they would be eager to supply us, but the reality is that they can't supply all 59 schools in the borough on a daily basis, although they may be able to help one or two. Sourcing local supplies is a tough call."

Bowley said that Sodexo used the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) definition of local as meaning from within the UK. "The important thing is that we always aim to know where the food is coming from," he said.

For Shire Services in Shropshire, buying local supplies - from within the county - has resulted in a major financial saving. "We have signed up two local fruit and vegetable suppliers on a three-year contract and are saving £70,000 a year, compared with the one national supplier that we previously used," Norton said. "A huge amount of work had to be done on this before we even put the contract out to tender, but it has been worth it as we've ended up with a better-quality product at a lower price."

The participants all agreed with the importance of keeping the school meals service affordable, in order that it remained sustainable. "We must remember that it is a major challenge for low-income families with two or three children to pay for school lunches," Wainwright said.

However, with the current acceleration in food inflation, many school meals providers are feeling the pinch - particularly where the meal price per head has been fixed for the next 12 months. As the average price of a primary school lunch edges closer to £2, there is concern as to whether parents will pay the price.

"As finances get squeezed, we will have to take some harsh decisions in order to balance the books," Shailes said. "We spend £30,000 a year on training our catering staff at Thames Valley University and we may have to start making cuts. The current meal price is £1.90 and there is a sense of nervousness as it moves towards the £2 barrier."

However, McKenna said it was ridiculous to regard £2 as a barrier. "It is fantastic value for a nutritional two-course meal - less than a pint of beer."

Shailes said that Ealing was considering trialling an offer of three meals for the price of two for larger families. "We also offer discounts to those children whose mums work in the kitchen - they are usually pretty good ambassadors for the service."

Wainwright said schools could benefit by offering the same kind of additional value to their product as often provided by many chain restaurant and coffee shop groups - as in buy five coffees and get the sixth one free - while Edwards highlighted the example of schools that offered free breakfasts in a bid to boost lunchtime business.

The discussion concluded with the participants offering suggestions for increasing the number of lunches sold in primary schools.

TIPS FOR INCREASING UPTAKE OF MEALS IN PRIMARY SCHOOLS

Offer free school meals to all new reception children for one week.

  • Allow children to select their meals in advance so that they will not be disappointed when the popular choices run out.
  • Keep up a constant communication with parents and invite them to food-tastings.
  • Consider banning packed lunches - successfully achieved in one Surrey school.
  • Ensure top-quality food is in place - without it there will be a fall in uptake.
  • Gain the support of the head teacher.
  • Push the message that improved learning and decreased obesity levels will result from an increase in uptake.

THE PARTICIPANTS

  • Georgina Ayin, consultant nutritionist, Litmus Partnership
  • Beverley Baker, head of commercial services, Surrey County Council
  • Alan Bowley, operations director, Sodexo Education
  • Joanna Collins, policy and communications manager, Food for Life Partnership, Soil Association
  • Julian Edwards, consultant, GY5
  • Emma Goodman, apetito
  • Bill Graney, manager, Ealing school meals, Harrison Catering Services
  • David Griffiths, apetito
  • Tony McKenna, managing director, Cater Link (part of Wilson Storey Halliday)
  • Janet Norton, general manager, Shire Services, Shropshire County Council
  • David Shailes, schools procurement manager, Ealing Council
  • Chris Wainwright, director of communications, School Food Trust
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