After a £1m cut to its budget, the School Food Trust is coming under increasing pressure to justify its existence in face of a widespread perception that its work is done. Neil Gerrard reports.
Did you ever get duffed up by the school bully and have your dinner money stolen? Then spare a thought for the School Food Trust (SFT), which had a bit of a run in with one of the big kids in the Westminster playground last week - Chancellor George Osborne.
The £1m that Osborne snatched off the SFT was actually part of its marketing and communications budget for 2011, leaving it with a total of just £7.5m for the coming year.
But things could get harder still as some of the other kids begin to play rough with the SFT too - and they want to see it with more than just a wedgie and its head down the toilet.
SERVED ITS PURPOSE
Vic Laws of AVL Consulting was quick to advocate a total closure of the quango when the news of the funding cut came out. He argues it has now served its purpose. Having already established a series of food- and nutrient-based standards for school lunches, the body is little more than a glorified marketing and data collection company, according to Laws. And the millions in its budget would better serve by being channelled into whatever follows the School Lunch Grant, a £240m fund which runs out in 2011.
While Laws has been known to criticise the SFT in the past, he isn't the only one who thinks its time is up. Richard Ware, head of service at Cambridgeshire Catering and Cleaning Services, told Caterer: "The SFT did do a fairly valuable job to start with, but it has probably achieved what it has set out to achieve, and in light of the current situation it has probably seen its day."
The kind of work that it does now, such as engaging head teachers in trying to extend lunch breaks to allow time to feed children better, is worthwhile, but nothing that couldn't be carried out by a couple of consultants, Ware claimed. And the 30 Food Skills and Excellence Training (FEAST) kitchens that it set up to help improve standards among school caterers are a useful resource but no longer need the SFT to survive, he added.
It's less of an easy decision for Simon James, managing director of Eden Foodservice. "It is a fairly expensive quango, and I am halfway to either side," James said. Although individual schools benefit from the SFT's marketing efforts, they are probably wasted on the bigger local education authorities' in-house operations and private contractors, he argued. "The SFT's budget could still be reduced further and fulfil a useful service," he said.
And cuts to the quango get the approval of Geoffrey Harrison, owner and managing director of Harrison Catering. "We've all got to bear some pain in this debt recovery, and I am also very much in favour of soft-touch Government, so reducing the SFT is something I would put a tick in the box for," he said.
But he is another who would not scrap it entirely. Instead, he'd like to see a greater focus on educating parents over packed lunches. "The SFT has got to do a lot more work on parents' wider education so children come into school with a better insight into what they are eating," he said.
All those jibes and taunts might be enough to leave the SFT's chief executive, Judy Hardogan, cowering behind the bike sheds. But she is adamant that her organisation still has a role to play.
"The SFT does masses of work on the ground supporting the change programme. I think it is broader than Vic Laws's quote that it is just marketing and data collection," Hardogan said.
Other work includes developing packed lunch and "stay-on-site" policies in participating schools to keep kids away from junk food; reaching out to parents online via websites such as Mumsnet; and targeting free resources to promote free school meals to the 6,000 or so schools that have already signed up to the SFT's ongoing Million Meals campaign.
But she still considers the research side of the SFT's remit - particularly the NI 52 survey, which monitors the uptake of school lunches - as a key part of its activity. "We can't argue for funding for school food if we don't have the facts about what is going on," she said.
In her view, with some local authorities still reporting a school meals take-up of less than 10%, the SFT's job is far from over. "We have really changed people's attitude to school food and we're getting three million children eating a healthy meal every day. We still have a way to go, and to stop now would undermine a lot of progress that has been made. School is one of the best ways to change children's eating habits. So we keep encouraging everybody to keep going with this, however hard it feels," she said.
And with the SFT due to report to the Department for Education on how it intends to hand back Osborne's £1m within the next few weeks, it may start to feel pretty hard pretty soon.
More children eat a healthy meal at school each day since the creation of the trust
THE SFT IN A NUTSHELL
• Purpose Administration body for food standards in UK schools
• Created 2005, after Jamie Oliver's criticism of school meals
• Employees 110
• Budget £7.65m (including £1.5m on marketing and communications)
• Base Sheffield
• Chair Rob Rees (formerly Prue Leith)