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A lot on their plates
Supply Management – 4 January 2007

Improving the quality of school dinners has given procurement a problem to sink its teeth into, as Mark Smulian discovers

Can Jamie Oliver have known what he was starting when he began his TV crusade for the extinction of turkey twizzlers?

The celebrity chef's campaign to improve school dinners caught the imagination of the public and politicians and resulted in a government drive to put healthier food on pupils' dinner plates.

Everyone involved agrees with the objective, but has the government provided the means to procure it? In two stages, it has ploughed a total of 460 million into healthier school food. It contributed 220 million for 2005-08 and produced a further 240 million in September to extend this until 2011.

That might sound generous, but school and council finance officers do not believe it's enough. There are huge costs involved in improving school meals. Aside from the higher price of fresh food, many schools no longer have equipment to prepare meals and lack trained catering staff. For the past 25 years councils and schools have sought to provide meals at the lowest cost, with the result that some have removed kitchens entirely, while others just reheat food supplied by central kitchens. Now equipment must be bought and staff trained to use it. The appetite to alter the approach to school dinners has left catering managers, buyers, headteachers, council finance officers and food manufacturers on a steep learning curve to discover how to source, prepare and provide fresh food. Oh, and pupils need to be persuaded to eat it.

Show us the money

Education secretary Alan Johnson said the 460 million invested by the government would "continue to subsidise healthy ingredients", and offered unspecified financial aid to help councils build school kitchens.

The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) has welcomed this but chairwoman Irene Carroll says it will be a lengthy process, adequate only for schools and councils "that have also won the lottery".

"Costs are up because the products being used are of a better quality and different type, and that will not go away," she says.

"We also have 25 years of public policy neglect in school meals to undo and we are going to need at least another 10-15 years for any improvements to make a difference.

"It will take about five years to work through the system because you need time for the current cohort of secondary pupils to have been replaced by those now at primary school where the drive for healthier food has had some acceptance."

She says success is dependent on how it is marketed to children, who find the "healthy" label off-putting.

The finance team at the Local Government Association (LGA) is also concerned. "The government has put up 76 million a year, averaged over three years, and the anecdotal evidence is that costs will be higher than that because it is more difficult to procure healthy food," a spokesman said.

Research for LACA found that the extra government money equated to 5p per meal, while food costs would rise by 15p. This gap could be bridged by raising meal prices or increasing the size of the market. Yet schools are having trouble tempting pupils to eat healthier meals and are loathe to increase prices for remaining customers.

"We have a battle on our hands to get pupils back into dining halls because parents have heard Jamie Oliver say school meals are poor quality and have taken their children out of them. We have to get that income back," Carroll says.

The other problem is that many children prefer unhealthy food. The LGA spokesman continued: "There is resistance from pupils and that leads to a downturn in take-up, so the cash that councils must spend per head goes up. That might appear to be an opportunity to put the prices up, but schools will probably lose business to the chippy down the road."

A National Audit Office (NAO) report published last year said the public sector's annual 2 billion tab for food and catering services could be cut by 220 million if more organisations improved their purchasing policies. Joint buying, it said, could shave 80 million from the bill.

What's being done?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative in 2003 to encourage small and local farmers, producers and suppliers to compete for food contracts.

The national lead for assisting councils with food procurement is the North East Centre of Excellence, one of nine centres set up to improve local authority purchasing. It is trying to identify standard practice that could assist all councils.

One piece of advice is for schools to align their menus with regional and seasonal production cycles. Bill Kirkup, co-ordinator of the procurement project, says: "If the food is in season, it's more abundant so there's an efficiency gain; less intensive agriculture methods are required, so less energy is needed; and if you want what's available in your region when it's in season, it's more likely that UK suppliers will be able to provide it.

"We're miles away from getting universal adoption of seasonal food cycles and it's taken a while for people to become aware of the initiative. There is an increased level of awareness about food procurement but it's some way off from where we would like to be."

Who does the procurement?

There are three main approaches to the provision of meals:

1) A local authority purchaser secures the services of an external caterer - such as Scolarest or Sodexho - and monitors them.

2) Schools use an in-house catering manager. Procurement staff get involved in the management of the buying process but the buyer, decision-maker or caterer is usually a non-expert purchasing person. The catering manager - who oversees services across a local authority area and runs kitchens in a number of schools - deals with the procurement person.

3) Schools secure their own services. The catering manager could be buyer and caterer. Or they could cook the food themselves but buy through the local authority or go direct to a local firm or big supplier.

The consensus is that it is difficult to retain and recruit skilled staff, whether catering or procurement managers. A case in point is Harrow Council. It employed Colin Masters, interim procurement consultant, for 30 days to overhaul its school catering and he is still there 14 months later. He is overseeing the food bought, the equipping of the kitchens, and the overall catering strategy.

Masters explains: "Before they can provide healthy food, many schools have to reinstate kitchens, which is a substantial capital investment. You can't have a blanket design as each kitchen will be a different size and shape."

He also says demand for catering equipment, and consequently prices, has increased. Once new kitchens are fitted, Masters expects "an element of difficulty" providing the foods children enjoy at higher nutritional standards.

"You could still serve beef burgers but to meet the new standards you would probably have to make them from scratch in school, and that's expensive. All prices are affected. For example, a moulded turkey product in the past might have been cheap scrag meat, but if you wanted one that was 100 per cent breast meat, it would cost more."

Lin O'Brien, head of Hertfordshire County Council's catering department, says rising costs challenge her ability to procure food that meets both health and budget demands. "In the past we could put on moulded products, such as twizzlers, but now it's quite an effort in terms of finances per head."

New nutritional regulations introduced by the government in the wake of Oliver's campaign prevent the sale of conventional burgers and chips - the most profitable items in secondary schools. "In future we will have to replace those with food in the target nutrient specification - for example, if we provide a sausage it must meet the nutritional requirements of the Food Standards Agency," says O'Brien.

Hertfordshire's main supplier, Brakes, has been able to use a lot of local produce and the local authority is trying to source pork and vegetable suppliers in the area for its 420 primary and 45 secondary schools. But O'Brien fears that there will be wastage if children don't buy what's provided. "Secondary students usually buy their food at cafeterias and can vote with their feet - it's not mum and dad paying, like in primary schools," she says.

The supply market

As well as Scolarest and Sodexho and Brakes, large national suppliers include Initial. Below them are smaller firms or individual farms.

But, Masters says, buyers' room for manoeuvre is restricted: "There are few mid-sized firms because if they get above a certain size they get gobbled up."

So buyers have a choice: deal with a large national supplier or a raft of small ones. Some councils and schools want to support their economy by dealing with local suppliers, but buying from multiple vendors increases administration costs.

While the supply market has reacted to the changes in school dinner policy with more enthusiasm than some pupils, Carroll says that suppliers need "time to respond" to new standards "because regulations have changed very quickly".

The Department for Education and Skills has published advice to schools and councils on how to switch suppliers, or end food supply contracts if they don't meet the new standards.

Carroll says she knows of no case where a contract has been terminated because of a supplier's inability to provide healthy food, but says that specifications have changed.

Sodexho says it has increased the proportion of fresh food it serves since the Jamie Oliver campaign began in 2005. A spokeswoman says it assembled 60 key suppliers last year to discuss how to improve meals in line with new legislation. They were told to provide saleable products with reduced levels of salt, sugar and fat.

"We are working closely with our major suppliers with the aim of eliminating or substantially reducing hydrogenated fats from key products."

Sodexho says "where volume permits" it tries to negotiate directly with growers rather than wholesalers, to support the farms on which it ultimately depends for supplies.

Defra will continue to work with smaller food producers and growers to increase their capacity to bid for school food contracts.

The food needed is there, but whether its cost will prove economical is a great unknown - the other is whether pupils will eat the results. If they choose the chip shop over the dining hall, the school meal market could become unsustainable.

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