School meals: Hitting the primary target

06 July 2006
School meals: Hitting the primary target

On a sunny spring morning in Lincolnshire the yellow rapeseed fields dazzle and the flat agricultural landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. In addition to rapeseed, the county is the most productive source of potatoes, cauliflowers, and root vegetables in the UK.

With such an abundance of food grown in the region, it seems perverse that Lincolnshire is the only British county to have completely got shot of hot meals in primary schools. The decision to rip out kitchens and turn them into classrooms was made in the late 1970s and would be extremely costly to reverse. Kids growing up in Lincolnshire have been eating packed lunches ever since.

This sorry state of affairs is now starting to change, thanks to the initiative of a local farmer and his wife. Stuart and Alison Ashton of Willoughby Farm near Boston have taken a community-focused and entrepreneurial approach to supplying hot meals to primary schools without kitchens. Through a joint venture with Boston College's catering department, the college now cooks the meals - up to 500 for four schools - and the Ashtons collect and deliver them.

The Ashtons have aimed to make the service as hassle-free and attractive to the schools as possible. They supply all the crockery and cutlery, take it away, wash it up and bring it back the next day. Apart from some extra administration such as collecting dinner money and a couple of helpers at lunchtime, all the schools have to provide is the tables and the hungry kids.

Stuart Ashton explains how this system gives both parties cause for reassurance: "In the worst-case scenario where the schools decide they don't want the service, if they had bought all their own equipment they could go to another provider. But under this system, it's a big decision for them to make - to pull out - because of the cost implication."

Early on a letter from Fresh One, Jamie Oliver's production company, arrived. The company has been back in touch with the Ashtons recently, praising their enterprise, and they may apear in a new airing of Jamie Oliver's School Dinners, due to be screened in September.

To establish Willoughby Foods, the Ashtons' start-up costs were £65,000. This paid for two vans, dining utensils for 500 kids, delivery boxes, gastronorms and eight employee's wages. Of the £1.80 that parents pay per meal, £1 goes to Boston College and the remaining 80p accounts for other expenses and profit. Ashton expects to start seeing a profit in the autumn term.

For Boston College, the alma mater of Gordon Ramsay protégé Jason Atherton, the venture has given the catering curriculum an extra dimension. The college already has two realistic working environments: a bistro and a formal restaurant. Now it has a third: a designated school meals production kitchen.

Programme leader Mel Staley says: "We recognised that our curriculum was biased towards fine dining. How can we give students a practical experience of high-volume catering? This has been the vehicle to do that. We have to recognise that not all of the students will go into fine dining. Particularly in Boston, job opportunities are scarce. Many don't want to move either away from the area or into top end restaurants."

The college's principal, Sue Daley, emphasises that the enterprise had to make sound business sense in order to get the go-ahead. The college has spent £35,000 on refurbishing the production kitchen, £16,000 on two combi-ovens, and taken on an extra chef and cleaner. It is expected to break even in year three of its five-year contract with Willoughby Foods.

One stipulation of the contract is that 60% of ingredients must be sourced from Lincolnshire. At the current rate of 500 lunches a day, this is returning £40,000 a year to the local economy.

Staley admits to having concerns that students may find the work demeaning, but this hasn't been the case. "They get satisfaction from the feedback. Praise is coming their way. This sort of work is really enterprising, and it helps their knife skills tremendously."

The most popular dishes are roasts, spaghetti bolognese, and lasagne. As an indication of high standards, Stuart Ashton says that one school recently told him the garlic bread wasn't strong enough and the crème caramel wasn't quite as it should be.

Ashton firmly believes that sitting down for lunch together can help kids be more adventurous in their eating habits. "If a child kicks up a fuss about eating cauliflower it's far easier for the parent to say he doesn't like it than to force him to eat it. Now we see children eating with their friends who will eat it. At first we pulled unpopular items off the menu too quickly but now we are keeping them on and slowly the kids come around."

Ashton intends to build the Willoughby Foods name into a strong local brand. Some will already be familiar with his 1,000-acre farm with 1,000 cattle. He already has another school catering business in Spalding that is following his procedures and another will start in Grantham in September.

Unsurprisingly, given that local authorities such as Kent, Berkshire, and Sheffield have found it difficult to attract bids, Willoughby Foods currently has no competition from other contractors.

Stuart Ashton and Boston College have founded an enterprise with minimum capital expenditure and the right structure for growth. "There is the potential to serve 3,000 meals a day," Ashton says. "We have had schools waiting for five months, but we're conscious we don't want to grow too fast."

St Aidan's Church of England High School, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Voluntary aided comprehensive with 1,800 pupils

Employing a qualified chef with 25 years' experience in restaurants and hotels was the starting point for the dramatic improvements at St Aidan's Church of England School over the past five years.

Before the appointment of Trevor Whitehead to head up a new in-house operation, the school took only £500 per day for lunches. Today its daily turnover is more than £3,000 and it is feeding 95% of the pupils and 75% of staff.

A dietitian works with the kitchen staff and pupils and an organic vegetable garden helps supplement bought-in produce. Beef and vegetables pie with new potatoes and carrots, and peach and apple crumble are just some of the dishes on offer. Fruit and milk are subsidised. The cost of a two-course meal with fruit juice in year seven is £1.70, while main courses for the rest of the school start at £1.45 and puddings are 70p.

"Such dramatic changes as those we've seen at St Aidan's can only happen in schools with forward-thinking head teachers who are prepared to take over the running of the catering themselves," Whitehead says.

"Our operation is designed not to make a profit as would be the case with a commercial company," he says.

"The biggest problem we've overcome has involved personnel in the kitchen. Some were frightened by change and left, while others have been inspired by working with a better product and now have a pride they didn't have before."

With the deputy head, Steve Hatcher, leading the changes, there are now four food outlets at the school. Cost of the new facilities and refurbishment was part funded by a loan from the local authority, fund raising, trust funds and grants.

Gladstone Park Primary School, Dollis Hill, North London Urban primary for 630 children

With no catering experience other than cooking at home and preparing the occasional meal for a local rugby team, Gaynor Watson took over the running of the school meal service at Gladstone Park Primary School in September 2004.

Watson was a nursery nurse at the school when catering company Castle View decided not to re-tender its contract. She believed she could make the catering offer better by offering fresh, tasty and nutritious food.

"I wanted to move away from the chips and burgers menu and offer the children much more fresh, organic produce, but I soon realised it was not that simple," Watson says .

Three things have helped to turn Watson's plans into reality. Firstly, she discovered Supply Direct, an online catering management system that provides a single invoice to cover all purchases.

Secondly, came Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign, which offered online advice, promotional material, recipes and menus - all of which Watson found inspirational and quick to use.

Thirdly, the support of the school's teaching staff and governors. With extra financial help from them, plus savings generated by Supply Direct, Watson was able to raise ingredients spending per head to 60p from the previous amount of around 35p. Long institutional-style tables have been replaced by cloth-covered tables with place settings and water jugs.

Today the non-profit operation is feeding around 320 children every day - double the previous uptake. Twenty out of the 30 staff now eat lunch, whereas only one or two did previously. Cost per meal is £1.60.

Typical dishes are spaghetti bolognese and spicy cheese tortilla wraps - the latter being a Jamie Oliver recipe. "It is still difficult to get the children to eat fish so the only processed food we still use is fish fingers," says Watson, who is assisted by five staff in the kitchen.

Landscove Church of England Primary School Near Totnes, Devon
Rural primary with 108 pupils

Eager to provide healthy, nutritious and, most importantly, delicious meals prepared by a cook with serious culinary credentials, Landscove Church of England Primary School decided to team up with a nearby organic farm and restaurant.

Riverford Organic Vegetables began serving lunches to Landscove in April 2005 after the school opted out of receiving food from Devon County Council. Previously only 20 meals a day were served; today around 90 meals daily are taken by children and staff.

Landscove realised that by appointing Riverford - situated just one mile away - it would have more control over the catering and an assurance that all meals were freshly prepared. Around 90% of the fruit and vegetables are organic and 60% of the meat is local.

A typical day's lunch may be roast pork with carrots, sugar snap peas and courgettes, followed by banana cake. Freshly mixed salads, fresh fruit and Riverford's organic yogurt are always regularly available.

The food is prepared by chef Jane Baxter, who formerly worked at the River Café, London, and her team of four in the kitchens of the 45-seat restaurant at Riverford and then transported to the school. Lunch costs £1.50 per head, the same as the council's meals.

Guy Watson, owner of Riverford, which runs one of the largest organic vegetable box schemes in the country, says: "We are still learning a great deal and are probably not quite covering all our costs at present."

Head teacher, Robin Smith, admits that it has been a struggle to cope with the new administration but it has been worth it: "We're now providing something very special for the children that will help create the right habits for their future."

Willoughby Foods - The costs

Farmer Stuart Ashton and his wife Alison have started a school meals business using Boston College's cooking facilities.

  • The Ashton's start-up costs: £65,000 for two vans, dining utensils for 500 kids, delivery boxes, gastronorms and eight staff wages for one year.
  • Boston College's investment: £35,000 to upgrade kitchen, £16,000 on combi-ovens, plus an extra chef and extra cleaner.
  • Cost per meal: £1.80.
  • Current number of meals per day: 500.
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