Though plans for free school meal pilots have been shelved, there is evidence that general uptake is back on the increase. Tom Vaughan asks what the age of austerity will mean for school meals provision and finds out how to appeal to children without breaking budgets.
On the battleground that is school meals, things are not as bad as they might at first appear. On the downside, the new coalition Government has yet to speak openly about its plans for the school meals grant, and - worse still - recently dropped the bombshell that plans to extend the pilot schemes of free school meals in the UK have been shelved. But it's not all doom and gloom.
On the plus side, news that the decline in school meals uptake is finally over is hopefully on the horizon - thanks to the good work of schools, parents and caterers.
Let's deal with the negatives first. Neither the Government's silence on the school meals grant nor its shelving of free school meal pilot schemes equates to the most auspicious start. In fact, the free school meals decision is kicking up quite a furore.
By the day, more voices are being added to the dissent over the decision, with a coalition of senior doctors and nurses joining the Child Poverty Action Group and Sustain in expressing their concerns, writing a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove that said: "Ensuring that all primary school children living in poverty receive a healthy school meal would make a considerable contribution to reducing both education and health inequalities.
"In a country where almost one-third of children are overweight or obese by the time they reach the end of primary school education, school meals have an important role to play in developing healthy eating habits."
However, Beverley Baker, national chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), is not too pessimistic about the news. "While Michael Gove has shelved new plans for extending entitlement to free meals, which is disappointing, he has also said he would reconsider once the results of the current pilot schemes are completed next year.
LACA will watch with interest and continue to support plans which entitle children officially defined as living in poverty to a free school meal," she says.
Likewise, Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the School Food Trust, is staying optimistic. "The free school meals pilots in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton will be invaluable in continuing the learning about the long-term benefits of good school food for children's health, wellbeing and performance, so we are pleased that these will continue," she explains. "It's up to everyone involved with school food to make sure that all families entitled to free school meals are claiming them."
The silence over the future of the school meals grant may also look worrying, but, with the grant not scheduled to cease until 2011, there is plenty of time for an announcement to come, says Baker. "If the grant doesn't continue it will undermine five years of hard work.
"However, with a budget just out of the way, and the grant set to continue into 2011, it might not be until the end of the year that we hear anything further and whether, if it does continue, it will be ring-fenced to support school food, rather than be absorbed in the overall school budget."
Whether the best-case scenario - a full, ring-fenced grant - or the worst-case scenario of no grant will transpire, Baker is unsure. But it is possible to take a bit of solace in the consideration that the former Labour Government intended to keep the grant, but were undecided on whether to ring-fence it. The possibility remains that the new Coalition Government will act similarly.
Amid the rather tepid news, there is, however, one potential beacon of hope. LACA has its fingers crossed that, at its conference at the beginning of July, it will be able to announce an increased school meal uptake across all local authorities, courtesy of its annual school meal survey, which it conducts alongside the School Food Trust. If so, it would mark an end to the decline in uptake that has occurred since nutritional standards were introduced.
If there is an increased uptake, says Baker, it is down to the hard work that has gone on over the past few years. "Many and varied marketing techniques have been used in schools - from commercial techniques, to tastings with parents, to cooking lessons," she adds. "The enormous marketing effort from caterers, with the help of schools and parents, has contributed to meal numbers in many cases starting to rise."
Such techniques will come in vital should the school meals grant be diminished for 2012, and vary from simple but successful communication over nutritional benefits, to competitions, cashless systems and parent tastings.
At contract caterer Elior UK's education contracts, the emphasis on fresh food, and the skill in communicating this to the children, has proved pivotal. "We've been doing things like growing our own herbs and putting them in the dining area," says Craig Fettes, operations director, education, at the company. "We get the children to taste them then tell us what the different herbs are. Then we make sure they are on the menu so the knowledge they have learnt can be reinforced."
ENGAGING WITH CHILDREN
Younger kids want to learn, says Fettes, and it's a case of plying them with the information in fun and entertaining ways. "With fruit, for example, we'll tell them why tennis players eat bananas during intervals at Wimbledon," he says. "It's amazing when you engage with children how much they soak up and how easy it can be to get your message across."
If the education side of it gets a bit too much, then kids love a competition, says Jane Bristow, managing director of Sodexo Education. "Even if it's encouraging them to get a stamp in a collectors book for every meal of the week, and submit a completed one to win a mountain bike.
"For kids even younger than that, design competitions are very popular - getting them to create their own baked potato and seeing it on the menu, for example."
While younger kids are more enthused by how the body works, older children need a different approach when selling healthy eating, explains Kate Martin, managing partner at school caterers Brookwood. "You have to sell it to teenagers on how good their skin will look, and how good their hair will look if they have a balanced diet," she says.
It's also vital to treat teenagers as adults, says Martin, and respect that what they eat when on the high street will be similar to what a working man or woman might eat. "You have to watch the high street constantly," she says. "Pret A Manger and Starbucks are their prime markets and when they change, we have to as well. If Starbucks launches a ginger and rhubarb muffin and it's popular, we need to do the same."
Bristow agrees: "Especially for the secondary school markets, it's about the way you package your food. It is high street driven, so selling lunch in a meal deal is something they will recognise and go for. It's what they're experiencing in their life outside school that we must never ignore."
FEEDING BACK TO PARENTS
Across the age groups, cashless systems make a massive difference, says Bristow. "With a cashless system the money will reach the school, otherwise it could well end up being spent in fringe shops," she adds. "If it ties in with information being fed back to the parent, all the better. For example, I can see that my son has eaten a panini three times in the past week, so I can urge him to go and try something different."
All the marketing techniques are 10 times harder, however, without a partnership between the different parties driving school meals, says Bristow: "This is all about partnership - a school can't do it on its own, a parent can't do it on their own and a caterer can't do it on its own. It's about making it work together."
With the LACA Conference on the horizon, partnership is a buzz word. All being well, by the end of the year, one such partnership will be LACA, the School Food Trust and the Government. Otherwise, as Baker says, all the hard work of the last five years will be a waste.
The LACA Annual Conference runs from 7 to 9 July at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole. Running alongside the School Catering Exhibition, the event brings together key catering personnel from local education authorities to discuss the key issues of the day. For more information visitwww.laca.co.uk/conference-exhibition.php
SCHOOL MEALS MATTER
With the future of school meals still in the balance, now is the time to show your support. Our School Meals Matter campaign has thousands of signatures already but, to make it as impactful as possible when we present it to the Coalition Government this month, we want the entire industry behind us. So if school meals matter for you, your business or your children then make sure you sign our petition before it's too late.
LOCAL SOURCING FOR SCHOOLS
At the LACA Conference, Doug Wanstall, managing director at Bank Farm/Food 4 and Mike Duckett MBE, catering manager at Royal Brompton Hospital, will discuss local and sustainable sourcing in the public sector and how to make it pay. In preparation, we asked two caterers how much local sourcing goes on in their companies:
Kate Martin, managing partner at school caterer Brookwood: "We do it, but it's not necessarily easy for everything.
"When a school is near a local food supplier then we use it - we have pork sausages from a local pig farm at one school, and local vegetables at another.
"We would like to grow it more, but it's just depends on the locality of the school and what it is near.
"Also, you have to ask whether it is sustainable to have 50 trucks delivering 50 ingredients to your school. How to achieve that balance is a difficult question, to which I'm not sure I know the answer."
Craig Fettes, operations director, education, Elior UK: "Everyone has to have their logistical suppliers - 3663 or Brakes or whoever. You need that for the volume. But it's also important to combine it with local produce.
"We did a talk at a Nottingham school recently where we had eight local ingredients - local cheeses, local lamb, local milk - all from within 10 miles.
"You can't set a business plan against that kind of produce because you need volume and prices that won't fluctuate, which the big logistical suppliers give. Nevertheless, it's important for the children to have local suppliers on there."