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The road ahead for LACA and the school meals service

21 October 2010 by

What does the future hold for LACA and for the school meals service, as government funding is withdrawn or reduced? Chris Druce looks at the challenging times ahead.
Tales of the school meals service's demise have been greatly exaggerated, with the wholesale abandonment of the institution by local authorities - bar Croydon in London, which has decided to leave it to individual schools in the borough - predicted at the onset of the healthy meals transition not having come to pass. But with intense competition for increasingly scarce public funding, and the existing Government school meals grant due to end next year, the more treacherous part of the journey could still be ahead.

Certainly the leak last month that the School Food Trust (SFT), set up by ministers in 2005 as a focal point for school meals reform, is to have its government funding withdrawn at the coalition's Comprehensive Spending Review later this month, can be read two ways. It's undoubtedly a sign of the times, with David Cameron's team working furiously to shave the UK's record deficit. However political issues have a shelf life and it's hard to shake the feeling that healthy school meals is a job considered done - both by the former administration and the new one. Other quangos are going to survive the funding cut because they are deemed essential. The SFT, which aims to continue as a charity, is apparently not.

Sandra Russell, newly elected chairman of the Local Authorities Catering Association (LACA), provided perspective after the leak, suggesting that for all the good work and support the SFT had provided its time - always intended to be finite - was now perhaps up, with nutritional standards in place at primary and secondary schools in England.

"LACA has always tried to find common ground and has worked closely with the trust, while agreeing to disagree on certain issues. However the time has come to let school caterers continue to take the service forward based on the solid foundation that the trust has helped build," she says.

The LACA chairman has already called for cash saved from funding the SFT to be redirected to frontline services in schools, but given the economic situation it's likely it will fall on deaf ears. The coalition is very keen on parent-run academies - which look set to be exempt from nutritional standards - but hasn't to date made the same enthusiastic noises about making sure what the children in them eat is interesting and nutritious.

END OF THE SCHOOL LUNCH GRANT

And funding is the inescapable issue that will affect the progress of the school meals service. The current School Lunch Grant of £220m comes to an end in March of next year, right at the point where the expected coalition cuts to public services will be at their height.

Previous LACA chairman Beverley Baker, who heads up Surrey County Council's catering, explained what this could mean in an article in Caterer in April. "It could spell the end of the service altogether for some, apart from free school meals, or it might mean a reduced food offer, which may simply undo all the hard work implemented by caterers in introducing the new healthier eating regulations to date."

Indeed Croydon, mentioned above, represents the fears of many within the sector. Eden Foodservice, the private contractor that held the borough wide catering contract, looks set to retain the bulk of its business, despite the council's decision to cease central management of the borough's service earlier this year and leave it to individual schools to arrange in a bid to save cash. London's Suffolk Council has also revealed plans to become an "enabling" authority essentially outsourcing or cutting a range of services currently provided directly, including school meals, in an effort to slash funding in line with government policy.

A TREMENDOUS BURDEN

Eden's managing director Simon James believes a cut in funding via the end next year of the School Lunch Grant will lead to some schools ceasing to provide meals, as other than free school meals provision (which doesn't have to be hot), there is no legal requirement for cash-strapped authorities to do so. He said of the Croydon action: "It's a tremendous burden to put on schools on top of everything else. I am hopeful that it is an isolated decision." The Government's recent announcement that child benefit is for the chop for the middle classes come 2013 is yet another financial hurdle facing the service.

Let's hope they can be overcome, as children eating new healthy meals in England's schools remain in the minority, despite a post-Jamie Oliver recovery. The latest school meals data shows that the proportion of children eating school meals at primary school increased year-on-year to 41.4% in 2009-10 (2008-09: 39.3%). Secondary, where many children can simply vote with their feet if they don't like what's on offer, saw a marginal increase from 35% to 35.8% in the same period.

Other risk factors include the coalition's push for academy schools, which typically look after their own catering. Vic Laws, managing director of AVL Consultancy, points out that it's not yet clear if local authorities will be able to bid for these contracts, and whether they will be able to be bundled (which brings economies). He fears the fragmentation of schools will do the same for the school meals service. "I think outsourcing will have to become more common," Laws adds.

Jane Bristow, managing director of contract caterer Sodexo Education, agrees. "While I have huge empathy with those that are going to have to make some very tough decisions, we expect to see growth as we can offer a range of services other than just catering. On a positive note we are definitely seeing children coming through the system now used to the healthy meals."

Things have certainly come a long way from the lows of the post-Oliver school period in a relatively short time, but it's clear momentum needs to be maintained if the long-term goal of future healthy generations with healthier attitudes to food is to be achieved.

Julian Edwards, food service consultant at GY5, is concerned about this and warns that with budget cuts rife, the spectre of cheapest deal wins, rather than quality of service, is raising its head once again. "We must fight to keep standards," says Edwards, who is worried how religiously some schools will enforce nutritional standards in the coming years given the government's light-touch enforcement of them, in theory under the direction of Ofsted. "Otherwise all the hard work could be undone."

LACA wrote to the newly elected MPs of the coalition in July, making the case that a healthy school lunch will likely save millions in diet-related treatment on the NHS long-term. Unfortunately, as we all know, politicians play the short game, which means the road ahead is unlikely to be any easier for school caterers.

SANDRA RUSSELL, CHAIRMAN OF LACA

Sandra Russell is head of catering at Warwickshire County Caterers and has returned to the entirely voluntary role of chairman and association figurehead for a second time, having held office in 2007/08. "I had hoped to avoid a controversial year, but it looks like that's not going to happen," says Russell.

Having joined LACA in 1990 as member 88, Russell is currently preoccupied with the fate of school meals funding come the coalition's spending review on 20 October. Her own Warwickshire saw a fall in uptake post-Jamie Oliver, which it is only just getting over, and like many shire authorities it doesn't have the economies of scale urban areas can count on.

"There's potential that all the hard work of the past few years could be undone," says Russell. "The investment we have had in the service has been most welcome, although it has probably replaced no more than 10% of what was taken out [from the late 1980s on], but we now have a firm base to build upon and model for the future. If the service isn't backed it's the children in schools today that will lose out."

Whether the cash-strapped Government decides to roll school meals funding into the main schools grant, putting it at risk of neglect as it won't be ring fenced, or even worse says the cupboard is bare, it's going to be a challenging time for the school meals service as parents look to trim their household expenditure.

Central to success will be getting head teachers on board as advocates of a service where there's increasing evidence that good nutrition aids behaviour and learning as part of a whole school approach.

"We will rally together, offering support through what will be difficult times, which is a strength of the association. As David Cameron has been saying ‘we're all in this together'," says Russell.

RUSSELL'S LACA CV

â- Appointed chair of the West Midlands Region in 1996

â- Joined training and development committee in 1998 and became chairman

â- National chairman from 2007/08

â- A hotel catering graduate of the Technology College in Blackpool (now Blackpool and the Flyde College), she moved into local authority catering in 1978 at a primary school in her home town in Warwickshire, and joined the county's catering management team in 1983. Russell took on the role of head of the newly formed Direst Service Organisation in 1989.

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