Our Commercial Director, Andy North attended The Great Big! School Meals Debate at First Choice Group in Cannock on Tuesday 7 February in association with Contract Catering Magazine, and in our latest blog, Andy gives his take on the event.

There was an excellent selection of key attendees on the day such as Premier Foods, LACA, SIPS, Chartwells, Cardiff Council, Atalian Servest Academy, The Pantry, Caterlink, Pat Fellows, Sodexo and CaterED.

Challenges for all…

Discussion took place around the cost per pupil and the subsidy local authority funding which is currently not sufficient to operate an effective meals service to schools. It was apparent that the parameters and standards across schools and academies were very different and that some schools are struggling to manage the requirements. 

The high nutritional values and rules outlined by the government are putting tremendous strain on the industry and are dictating the meals that schools, academies, and universities can provide.

Some consultants that manage tenders on behalf of schools, academies etc will provide a best value bid for the customer but there was big discussion at the event about whether driving down costs impacts the service they receive from the caterer. In reality it is often the cheapest bid that wins but is that really helping both the school and the caterer succeed?  

The contract caterer often inherits the current team of staff and their previous conditions of employment and with contracts that link back to generous local authority contracts terms it can prove challenging to change the embedded culture.

The group confirmed that smaller outlying primary schools do not provide a return on invested time & money and as a result many of them are pulling away from these contracts. And as councils consider withdrawing services in the future this appears to be leaving many smaller schools to rethink how they provide catering to their pupils.

The debate in session

The Future. what needs to change…

Front line staff were a topic of discussion, and there were strong feelings from some around the table about how important it is to protect the good job they do and how hard it is to recruit good staff in the current market.

When suggesting that we could be more creative and look to provide a better fresh food service whilst utilising technology to pave the way forward, it provoked a big response.

Our CaterCloud solution can provide all nutritional and allergen information, full menu and cost control measures and can allow generation of weekly meal templates and by utilising tech to reduce labour we could create a sustainable model that could be implemented across all council areas. There was great discussion around this and curiosity around how far we really could push the tech but it jumped out at me that the majority are not ready to lose the human touch completely.

When I sat back and thought about this it reminded me of when I ran ‘The Catering People’, a contract catering company and how our success was built on our ethos of driving innovation whilst continuing to deliver high service standards.

The contract catering market is saturated by many companies and those younger companies who are hungry to grow and survive in a very complex and competitive market not only need to innovate but also need to work closely with the catering teams to motivate and create a multi-skilled workforce, complimenting the tech with the human touch.  

Cardiff Council brought a fresh view of things in Wales, the Welsh authority provide a higher subsidy level and appear to have a much more pragmatic view of educational catering. The use of holiday meal vouchers also goes a long way by helping to feed children during the school holidays. It was apparent that the Welsh authorities engage more with councils to ensure high standards.

In my opinion I believe that there is an over-haul required for education catering standards, but this is a big job, and a uniformed approach needs to be taken across the whole education system with the focus being high service standards delivered by teams that are trained and rewarded for achieving such standards and supported with innovative tech.

It’s been great to talk about my take on the event and the topics we debated, and it was clear that schools, academies etc. are fighting to provide the best service they can within their company parameters, but it left me with food for thought around the requirement of some movement somewhere from the government, creative thinkers and successful tech businesses to help drive change for the better.

Andy North, Commercial Director