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Round table: The fight to save school meals

05 November 2009 by
Round table: The fight to save school meals

Nutritional standards became mandatory in secondary schools this September and the end of the Government's transitional funding is fast approaching (March 2011). So where does this leave school caterers post-Jamie Oliver's 2005 crusade? Caterer and Hotelkeeper, in association with Premier Foods, invited key figures to London's Renaissance Chancery Court hotel to discuss the issues. Janie Stamford reports.

It was clear from the outset of our debate that, despite a general sense of optimism and recognition of the achievements made to date, there was also a very real awareness of the long road ahead and obstacles to come.

In fact, overall uptake of school dinners in secondary schools rose by only 0.5% in the past year and currently sits precariously at 36%, according to the latest annual survey compiled by the School Food Trust (SFT) and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA).

With industry experts suggesting that a fall to 30% could spell disaster and put an end to school meals forever, the questions remain: can enough growth be achieved to maintain high standards before the £460m transitional funding pot runs dry, and what needs to be done to achieve that growth?

DISCUSSION PARTICIPANTSBeverley Baker, chairman of Local Authority Caterers Association; head of commercial services, Surrey County Council John Carlin, operations performance leader, Chartwells Tony Davison, business manager, education, at sponsor Premier Foods Arnold Fewell, managing director, AVF Marketing; National School Meals Week organiser; creator of MySchoolLunch.co.uk Nicola Jones, of sponsor Premier Foods Allyson Lloyd, food in schools manager, Croydon Council Lin O'Brien, head of catering, Hertfordshire County Council Peter McGrath, delivery manager, School Food Trust Richard Ware, head of service, Cambridgeshire County Council Catering and Cleaning Services
FUNDING Beverley Baker, LACA chairman and head of commercial services for Surrey County Council, expressed concern over the "real likelihood" that the Government's current funding will end and what this will then mean for the industry. "The Government always said it was transitional and there's a good chance we could have a new administration soon," she said. "However," she added, "if uptake of school meals increases, the impact of losing the funding will not be as severe." But Richard Ware, head of services at Cambridgeshire County Council Catering and Cleaning Services, warned that even with funding, many contracts still struggled to break even. "There's no local authority money any more as most have already cut spend in education and social services." In Hertfordshire, Lin O'Brien, head of catering at Hertfordshire County Council, has put a lot of the government cash her team received towards improving the quality of the service they offer, but she expressed concern over the huge challenge they will face when the funding goes. "A lot of it comes down to the parents' perception of ‘value for money'. We need to convince them that £2 a day ensures that each child receives a quality meal. "With my remit simply to break even, I'm not sure whether increased uptake will be enough," she added. The SFT's delivery manager, Peter McGrath, said the trust was looking to work with local authorities across the UK on funding models, but he also emphasised the role of operators. "Services should aim to be sustainable over time," he stressed. "Increased uptake is important, but all caterers need to make efficiencies, too." NUTRITIONAL STANDARDS But perhaps the slow and slight rise in school meals uptake is down to the fact that the introduction of nutritional standards hasn't changed much on the ground. "There's a feeling out there that the secondary school market is paying lip service to the standards and not much is actually changing," according to Ware. "In Cambridgeshire, most of our schools are self-operated and, because I also work with the client, I know those schools are not doing anything with the standards." The message Ware repeatedly hears is that the catering operation's main aim is to break even, as the schools have other priorities on which to focus. Croydon Council's food in schools manager, Allyson Lloyd, shares this experience. "The schools in Croydon that do their own catering are not compliant, and the worrying thing is they don't even understand the standards." She added that there was no appointed role to advise them and no one on the senior management team with enough knowledge or understanding of catering to meet the standards. However, McGrath warned that as the regulations only became mandatory in September, it was too soon to measure how effective their implementation had been. But he acknowledged that in-house knowledge was already proving a difficult hurdle. "Communications need to improve to ensure there is proper understanding of the standards," he said. SUPPORT FROM THE HEAD One key way of ensuring this was, the panelists agreed, to get the support of the head teacher and buy-in from the whole school in promoting the value of school meals. "Lots of things make a school high achieving," according to Baker. "The food is only one element. We've got compliant menus across Surrey, but schools need an inspirational head teacher on board to get behind the drive as well as a lock-in policy at lunchtime," she said. "Schools with head teachers that are enthused about the importance of healthy school dinners have the highest uptake," according to Ware. "So shouldn't school meals be compulsory? They should be, if the Government is serious about their concerns," he added. But O'Brien explained why getting the support of the teaching staff was hard. "It's difficult to get heads to invest cash. It's not their priority. It isn't just about the quality of the food," she continued. "There's a need to create a nice dining environment, that's what students want. Unless schools work with us, we can't achieve that." The group recognised the need to carry on the good work achieved so far in primary schools. "We focus a lot of offers on year seven children, with the aim of capturing them early on and then retaining them," added O'Brien. Without this approach, there's a danger the efforts of effective primary schools will be undone without adequate facilities in secondary school. MARKETING Arnold Fewell, organiser of LACA's National School Meals Week (9-13 November) and creator of MySchoolLunch.co.uk, also emphasised the need to communicate effectively with the students. "Children spend £646m on their way to and from school - cash that doesn't make its way into the school catering system. But marketing is seen as hard in secondary schools." McGrath said marketing tools such as good point of sale merchandising and staff with good product knowledge were needed to drive and retain uptake, while O'Brien added that marketing to parents had increased uptake in her region. "But it has a cost, marketing is very expensive and budgets are very tight," she warned. Lloyd pointed out that, ultimately, marketing would be successful only if there were parents who could afford to pay for school meals. "The issue is, there are a lot of families with incomes just above the threshold that qualifies them for free school meals," she explained. "And if the subsidy given in many schools is removed when the government funding stops, will the threshold be raised?" John Carlin, operations performance leader at school caterer Chartwells, part of Compass Group, found it was able to grow school dinner uptake by "putting the fun into food". "We've been running activities in our schools for the past two to three years, encouraging children to get more involved with food, to understand it better," he explained. "As a result we've seen secondary school participation grow 10% year on year." The group considered the changing habits of society as a whole to be the reason behind the increasingly discerning dining habits of today's youth."The kids have been asked and they say they want a coffee shop environment," Ware added. Of course, this again returned the argument to the issue of cost: cash is needed to increase school meals uptake; and increased uptake is essential to fund these efforts. "It took a generation to sideline school meals," said Baker. "It will take a generation to get the standards back." But the cost benefits in the long run are huge, she explained. "Any funding invested now will be a saving for the NHS in the future." By promoting school meals as a health benefit, it can be cost neutral for government long-term, if not a saving, Baker added. The group emphasised the need to keep the topic high on the political agenda, particularly in the run-up to the 2010 election. "Why aren't we sending open letters to every MP in the UK?" asked Fewell. "Once school meals are gone, they are gone forever." PREMIER FOODS Premier Foods Foodservice is committed to supporting schools in their goal of getting children engaged in healthy food, and choosing to eat hot meals at school. And we understand the drivers to achieving healthy school meals, from cost efficiency to nutritional compliance. Caterers are faced with the challenge of producing nutrient-compliant menus while contending with short lunch breaks, difficult dining areas and competition from "fringe" take-aways and shops. Premier Foods Foodservice understands this challenge and through our range of brands, including McDougalls, Quorn, Angel Delight, Bird's and Homepride, we are committed to offering the best quality products for school meal providers. To help them, our dedicated schools team creates solutions including new recipes and nutritional analysis, and run practical courses, such as ‘Try Before You Buy' demonstrations, ‘Healthy Eating Talks' and the Premier Foods Culinary Academy. All this activity is free for any school catering unit who wants to use it. These activities underline our commitment to being the number one helping hand in education catering. Premier Food Service
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