Caterers have hailed the Government's £240m pledge to extend healthy school meal funding in England between 2008 and 2011 as a victory for the industry. They believe the announcement of more cash by education secretary Alan Johnson on Monday was prompted by pressure from caterers, suppliers and schools.
A spokesman for Compass Group education division Scolarest said: "This was brought on by a lot of different voices saying the journey is longer than originally thought and extra funding is needed."
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) was similarly upbeat. Chairwoman Irene Carroll said: "LACA is pleased the Government has listened to the concerns of caterers, as well as many others, that the earlier investment level and time period were insufficient."
Food service consultant Vic Laws was more cynical, and believed the timing of Johnson's announcement has more to do with Jamie Oliver's imminent TV show. "Why the change of heart? We were told there would be no more cash before 2007. This looks like it's meant to head off any repercussions from Jamie's new programme," he said.
Caterers were critical of the original funding announcement, pointing to the fact that PricewaterhouseCoopers said the £220m earmarked for the first phase of funding (to cover 2005-08) was £550m too short.
But they appear to have softened their tone this time and were reluctant to call for more short-term cash, with both Sodexho and Eden Foodservice joining Compass in welcoming the news.
Eden managing director Simon James said the money bought time for caterers to increase volumes. "The last thing we wanted local authorities to say in 2008 was that the money had dried up," he added.
Sodexho's only word of caution was a plea to ensure the new money was effectively ring-fenced.
Laws was more openly critical. "It's still not enough," he said. "We need money in the long term as much as we need it in the short term."
The Government package also includes £2m to set up training courses for school cooks, provide extra cash for new kitchens, and pay for cookery lessons in schools.
By Tom Bill