Contract caterers have been urged not to ignore parent power after a north London borough bowed to pressure and dumped Scolarest as its school meals provider.
Scolarest, part of Compass Group, had provided 49 of Islington borough's 55 schools with catering services since 2003. But following complaints from parents it has lost the contract for the forthcoming academic year, which starts in September, in favour of rival Cater Link.
Islington Council said the decision to award the new £5m-a-year three-year contract to Cater Link - traditionally strictly a matter for councillors - was largely down to the parents and local pressure groups such as School Meals Matter.
James Kempton, leader of Islington Council, said: "We were made to listen hard when parents, pupils and schools told us that school meals had to improve. And we have really taken on board their views."
Cater Link, which won London's Camden from Scolarest last year, is promising a menu consisting of 90% fresh food repeated no more than once every six weeks.
Managing director Tony McKenna said the company, part of the same group as BaxterStorey, always tried to involve parents and pupils alike at its 100-strong state school contracts. "At senior schools we reach out to parents when their children first join through use of a cashless payment system," he said. "We say invest in school meals through the system and we'll guarantee your children have access to only healthy, fresh meals."
McKenna said while the company had traditionally avoided "cost-driven" local authority contracts such as Islington, there was now a growing willingness from councils to invest in services, a result, in part, of parent and teacher pressure.
Food service consultant Julian Edwards said while this pressure wasn't uniform across the country it was clear caterers couldn't rest on their laurels. "Parents are stakeholders in the tendering process and it's therefore always a positive step to get them involved," he said.
Scolarest said it was disappointed with the council's decision. "The feedback from all parties over the past year in particular - including parents - has been increasingly positive with the majority welcoming the continued improvements to the service," a spokeswoman said.
She added that meal uptake in the borough had increased from 55% to 63% in the current year.
By Chris Druce