With five councils now charging £2 for school meals as burgeoning food costs hit home, Janet Harmer asks whether hitting this crucial price point will set back the recent gains in food provision at primary school level
Having spent the past few years battling against falling take-up numbers and introducing rigorous nutritional standards, school caterers have now been hit with yet another major challenge: rising food prices.
For some, the steep increase in the cost of staple ingredients - rice, pasta, flour, dairy products, meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables - might push the price of a school lunch beyond what parents are willing to pay. While families with one child may be able to swallow the increase in the price of a school lunch, there is concern that some families with two or more children are going to struggle. Could they reconsider their purchase of school meals?
"Rising food prices are a big threat," says Richard Ware, head of services at Cambridgeshire Catering & Cleaning Services, which provides meals for 190 primary, special and nursery schools and 10 secondary schools in Cambridgeshire, as well as 45 primary schools in Essex, Peterborough and Rutland.
Food prices have gone up by about 12% in the past 12 months, and Ware believes they could rise by a further 18% in the next year. "These [price increases] seem to be affecting all food products and, with oil prices rising the way they are, this will definitely impact on supplier delivery costs."
Figures from the School Food Trust show that 42% of pupils in primary schools and 37% in secondary schools are now eating a school lunch - an increase from when the figures took a dramatic drop following the Jamie Oliver campaign - but there is concern that these numbers might start to fall again as the price of a two-course primary school lunch moves towards, and beyond, £2.
In April, in fact, a two-course set lunch in Norfolk schools increased by 10p at the beginning of the summer term, taking the price of a meal in primary schools up to £2. Somerset County Council took the bold step of pricing meals at the £2 mark, too. "The increase in food prices has required the council to increase the cost of a school meal in recent months. But uptake still remains high," says Paul Saleh, group manager, Somerset County Services (SCS), the council's in-house catering operation.
Saleh justifies this recent move as the only option available: "The council already absorbs as much of the costs as possible to keep prices low for parents. Understandably, parents are concerned about the price of school meals. However, they understand the council is providing quality and healthy food at the lowest-possible cost."
SCS caters for 105 out of a total of 273 schools in Somerset , 85% of which are primaries, with a current uptake of between 25% and 40% for meals. The council insists there will be no more rises in the next six months, but other councils are not far behind. Cambridgeshire will be upping the price of a two-course primary school meal from £1.85 to £1.90 in September, while in Surrey it will rise from £1.70 per day to £1.80 across 319 primaries. In Devon, where the local authority caters for 265 primary schools, the cost of a meal will be increased for the second time this year, from £1.85 to £1.95.
Of those approaching the £2 mark, one is brave enough to admit that it could be too much. "I'm worried that two increases this year will affect our numbers considerably," says Lesley Yeomans, operations manager, primaries, at Devon Direct Services. "We usually bounce back from a price increase. But the cost of everything is going up, which is putting pressure on families to save money where they can. I can see how a school lunch is not a priority."
Prue Leith, chairman of the School Food Trust (see panel, page 27), says that "actually, £2 for a two-course meal in primary schools, prepared from fresh ingredients, is a damn good deal. It might be 30p more than I would want to pay, but if I knew that my children were being properly fed for that price when they could easily spend at least half that amount on chocolate bars on the way to school, then I would be happy."
Whatever it costs
But many disagree. Tony McKenna, managing director of Cater Link, which supplies meals to about 100 primary and 100 secondary schools in the London boroughs of Camden and Islington, says: "Those parents with a significant income will be happy to pay whatever it costs to achieve the right food standards for their children. However, while those kids entitled to free school meals will be OK, those who are just above the school meal threshold will really struggle."
It's unfortunate, too, that these rises come at a time when healthy food at primary schools was starting to win the PR battle. According to Arnold Fewell, of school meals consultants AVF Marketing: "The most dangerous thing at this stage would be for caterers to compromise the quality and nutritional content of school meals. They have worked so hard to improve in this area, but it would be a PR disaster if that should happen, and take-up numbers will once again fall away."
However, Simon Harris, business development director for education at Aramark, insists that rising food prices will have no impact on the nutritional aspect of school meals. "It is just not an option for us to compromise on quality, as our entire ethos is based on healthy, balanced meals and increasing uptake. Where possible, we are not passing on the full cost to parents, leaving less room for manoeuvre."
"Some tough decisions will need to be made if the cost of essential ingredients continues to spiral," continues Harris. "But at the moment astute menu planning, good housekeeping and the introduction of new choices are cushioning us from the full impact. We are monitoring the situation carefully."
Ian Sarson, managing director for health, education, defence and government at Compass, says that he has been able to reduce the impact of food inflation at Scolarest. "We look at which categories are experiencing the most inflation and which are likely to in the future, and then limit our exposure to these products as much as possible by adapting menus." Sarson says the company has also been working with suppliers "to manage spend more effectively". Scolarest is the largest school meals provider in the UK, with contracts in 1,100 primary and 420 secondary schools.
Much can be done to combat rising food prices by ensuring the most efficient ordering systems are in place. Hertfordshire County Council, in common with many local authorities across the country, provides a daily third-of-a-pint milk carton to primary school pupils. Traditionally, the costs of ordering, paying invoices and reclaiming the school milk subsidy have been high in relation to the amount spent on milk, as well as being subject to error and delay.
When Hertfordshire's school milk contract expired in March 2006, Dairy Farmers of Britain took over this £500,000 annual contract and put in place an electronic ordering system. As a result, 20,000 invoices were removed, and savings of £150,000 made during the first year.
Major suppliers are not big fans of buying locally and seasonally. According to David Griffiths, national account manager for education at frozen food manufacturer Apetito: "The increase in food costs is making a long-term commercially viable meal service difficult to sustain. The agenda to move towards local, organic, fresh sourcing is increasing the cost of food provided and the cost of preparation. Parents are voting with their wallets, and school meal uptake is in decline. Spending £2.40 producing a meal and selling it for £1.80 just isn't sustainable."
However, others believe that local, seasonal sourcing can save money. "It's generally perceived that large national suppliers will offer the best value, but that is just not so," says Keith Tilbrook, manager of North Yorkshire County Caterers, which produces 37,000 school meals a day in 347 schools throughout the county and 57 schools in the city of York. "Smaller suppliers can provide ingredients at a similar, if not cheaper, price, as well as providing the opportunity to support the local economy."
The tendering process for a two-year contract to supply fresh meat, poultry and fish from April 2007 resulted in 60% of all fresh meat and poultry being supplied from within North Yorkshire, about 90% of the total being sourced from within the region, and all of it being supplied from the North of England. Savings of about £30,000, or 3% of the contract value, were the result. Local sourcing of ingredients has enabled the head teacher of a Leeds primary school to guarantee to parents that the price of their children's two-course lunch will not rise beyond £1.60 before March 2009.
Another way to save costs is to take the catering in-house. In September 2006 Angela Rushall, of St Joseph's Catholic Primary School in Pudsey, North Yorkshire, wanted more control over the management of meals. Wastage has been virtually eliminated, and take-up of lunches at the 230-pupil school has risen from 70 to 150 each day. "We balance the cost of more expensive ingredients, such as haddock, with wholemeal French bread pizza with tuna, sweet corn and cheese," says Rushall. Haddock comes direct to the school from Whitby, is then coated in wholemeal breadcrumbs, and baked in the oven alongside potato wedges with their skins on. "Cutting out all waste is the most significant factor in keeping our food costs down," Rushall adds.
Economy of scale
However, above all, the cost of food is best kept down by numbers going up. Effectively, the cost of operating a kitchen producing 100 meals a day is not significantly different from the cost of producing 150 meals a day. "The larger the number of meals produced, the greater the economy of scale achieved, and the lower the unit cost of each meal," says Steve Price, general manager of Southampton City Catering, which serves 65 primary and 10 secondary schools in the city.
Fewell pinpoints this as a question of marketing and believes local authorities, food service companies and individual schools must all step up their marketing activities and embrace the opportunities provided by the internet in order to increase numbers eating school meals.
"Digital marketing, whether via search engine optimisation, social networking, blogs, podcasts, online reviews and ratings or mobile phones, all enable you to have greater understanding of the needs of pupils and students," says Fewell. "It means they'll respond positively and trust the efforts of the caterer."
One good example of this student-focused approach to marketing comes in Cambridgeshire, via the council's "My School Lunch" website (www.myschoollunch.co.uk/cambridgeshire). This site is the main focus of the county's "10/10" programme, in which the council is aiming to eliminate a £1m deficit by increasing meal numbers by 10 per year in every school over the next three years. Such an increase would have the effect of upping the number of school meals being served in the county from an average of 11,600 per day (31% uptake) to about 16,800 (45%).
Cambridgeshire's marketing campaign is aimed at restoring the lost confidence in the school meals service, and includes an initiative to make sure primary school pupils in the last lunch sitting get their choice of food. This had previously been a significant factor in children choosing not to have a school lunch. Allowing the pupils to make their choice first thing in the morning - signified by the wearing of a coloured band - has proved successful.
Careful sourcing of local ingredients and efficient ordering systems along with more creative marketing will help keep the price of a primary school lunch down to some extent, but it will be only a matter of time before most councils are charging £2. In the current climate it's very much a case of the later this happens, the better.