School caterers feel they have received a major kick in the teeth, says Kevin McKay, national chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association.
The Jamie Oliver TV series, coupled with the continuing negative media coverage of school meals, has caused a widespread drop in paid school meal numbers. Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) members across the country have reported decreases on average of 9-10% as a result of parental reaction.
It should be borne in mind that the school meals service in this country continues to operate, despite recent Government investment, as a business. If parents do not support it, it will result in job losses and caterers will struggle to deliver the pledges to improve nutritional standards.
The Jamie Oliver series established an immediate perception among parents across the country that all school meals were of the same low standard as those shown in Greenwich. LACA members have reported that parents acted on impulse and withdrew their children from school meals without first checking out their local service for themselves. Parents that did take time to sample their children's school meals in person were surprised at how misleading the Greenwich portrayal had been.
School caterers are highly committed to delivering the quality school meals everyone is calling for and there is extensive evidence of good progress having been made long before Jamie Oliver hit our screens or any Government promises had been made. LACA has strong evidence from surveys conducted this autumn that much action had already been taken to significantly reduce processed foods as well as sugar, salt and fat in general from menus.
LACA is concerned about just how much more the intensely dedicated catering staff in school kitchens can take. Many feel they have received a major kick in the teeth. They feel de-motivated, under-valued and morale is running at an all-time low.
We need to urgently turn the tide of public perception about the quality of school meals and gain wholehearted support for the highly committed work that is going on by them to reverse 25 years of public policy neglect.
LACA welcomes the fact that the School Meals Review Panel, while producing a set of new standards that will provide a solid framework for improving children's diets and long-term health, has at the same time heeded the important issues facing school caterers in making such radical changes. At long last it heralds a tangible transformation of the school meals service, which has long been overdue.
We must acknowledge Jamie Oliver for ensuring that the importance of school meals leapt up everyone's agenda after years of disregard. The proposed changes represent a major turning point and a fantastic opportunity that we should all positively embrace.
Jamie Oliver did succeed in provoking a major reaction from the Government and although school caterers will still have to face many challenges in the short term, these will hopefully be offset by the major long-term benefits for children's health.
What we also now need to do is restore confidence, respect and support for school caterers instead of undermining and ignoring positive progress and good practice at every opportunity.