Uptake of the new healthier school meals is plummeting, while caterers feel their concerns are being ignored as the Government imposes increasingly stringent guidelines. Chris Druce reports
At the start of 2005 the way ahead for school meals was clear. The system in England was to be transformed: out with the Turkey Twizzlers and in with healthy, nutritious food.
Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign had achieved the sort of traction previous initiatives had only dreamt about, and in response the Government pledged £220m over three years and then created the School Food Trust (SFT) to make reform happen.
Everyone knew it would not be easy, but with levels of obesity rising, changing children's ingrained eating habits through the education system had to be done, it was argued.
However, just over a year on from the introduction of food-based standards limiting the availability of junk food, and a month after the banning of chocolate and unhealthy snack vending, the system is in distress.
Three reports in the past four months - from the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), the SFT and education watchdog Ofsted - have all painted a black picture of plummeting meal uptake.
LACA, which has 135 of the 150 local authorities with education departments in England as members, found three-quarters of schools had experienced a fall in school meal uptake since 2006. This leaves the national average for meal uptake at secondary level at its lowest ever, at 35% (2003-04: 42%). The figure for primary schools is 40% (2003-04: 43%).
Despite this, Oliver last week insisted that school meals reform was going as expected, with far more schools offering healthy food than before. "It's simply not true that the school dinners campaign has failed," he told Caterer. "It was never going to be easy, but as far as I'm concerned everything is going as planned."
But how bad do things have to get? While the Government has stumped up an additional £240m for the period 2009-11, with 23,000 schools in the country, that works out to only about £10,000 of funding each, with more stringent nutrient-based guidelines to come.
Six in 10 local authorities provide catering directly to schools, with private contractors covering another 30% of a market valued at £1b. Half of all school kitchens need investment staff need training and more stringent nutrient-based guidelines have yet to be introduced, but already 65% of councils are running a deficit.
So what can be done? LACA, in association with the SFT, has just announced a teen media campaign called Cool School Fuel in a bid to win hearts and minds.
The Government has also embarked on a promotional exercise, Million Meals, which was launched on Tuesday (16 October). Aimed at involving pupils, parents and headteachers, it will find favour with many caterers concerned at a lack of support but will need to make a significant impact to improve the situation.
Gordon Haggarty is managing director of Accent Catering Services, which recently picked up the contract at Seven Kings High School in Ilford, Essex. Seven Kings encapsulates the "whole-school approach" promoted by the SFT, with headmaster Sir Alan Steer negotiating £400,000 to be spent on dining and kitchen facilities at the site.
However, Haggarty said this remains unusual, and added that too many local councils still try to tie caterers into onerous contracts, while headteachers are understandably more concerned with exam league tables than food.
"Most county or borough-wide contracts remain price-led," he said. "And too many management teams and governors at schools remain ignorant of the food guidelines. They don't understand them and view it as the caterer's problem."
Geoffrey Harrison, managing director of Harrison Catering Services, which caters for 380 schools across the UK, remains angry at the decision not to legislate on packed lunches.
"The Government missed a vital part when they failed to apply the school meals standards to packed lunches," he said. "The school meals system is volume-sensitive and is losing sales because kids sit with packed-lunch children who can bring in Coke and chocolate if they want to. There needs to be enforcement for packed lunches also, to make the reforms work."
Lack of dialogue
Compass UK and Ireland chief executive Ian El-Mokadem, whose Scolarest division is the largest private contractor working in the school meals system, doesn't hold back on what he views as a lack of dialogue between caterers and the Government, describing the process of reform so far as "unnecessarily painful".
"Ed Balls the schools secretary] hasn't listened. We've all bought into improving school meals, but I don't understand why this means the Government has to ignore caterers when deciding how to do it," he said. "There needs to be no more mucking about. It must be left to the people who know and care to implement the changes within the guidelines."
Direct words - which we have come to expect from El-Mokadem - but it remains to be seen whether the Government will take the views on board and, in doing so, prevent the potential collapse of the entire school meals system.
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