Does your catering support those who need it most?

Nicky Gillhespy, chief operating officer, LEO Academy Trust, on why you should make catering provision in your school a priority

I found it interesting to discover that free school lunches were actually first introduced in the UK in 1879 for primary age children. However, they were not made compulsory until 1944 when the National School Meals Policy required a balanced meal to be provided to children of low income households.

In 1980 the government abolished national school meal standards and ended entitlement to thousands of children in a move to cut costs. Standards reduced dramatically until Jamie Oliver spearheaded the school meals revolution in 2004.

In 2014 the Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) initiative was introduced providing a free school lunch to all pupils in reception, year 1 and 2 and also new nutritional requirements for all school meals.

As an SBL there are so many areas of responsibility that sometimes it is easier (or sometimes just not possible due to time restraints) to turn a blind eye to catering and let it carry on in the background without causing too many issues. However, in my experience, as with most long standing contracts or arrangements, things aren’t always as they are supposed to be and standards can slip over time or just not keep up with pupil and parent expectations. Catering is an area of school life where as a SBL we can make a huge impact on the daily lives of our pupils especially disadvantaged ones. Childhood obesity and financial inequalities are rising, and the importance of a hot nutritious meal cannot be underestimated.

Marcus Rashford became involved in the FSM campaign in 2020 when school closures due to COVID meant that children in need were missing out on the daily meal provided by schools. The Edenred voucher fiasco and the embarrassing hampers provided by some catering contractors really brought school meals to the forefront of all SBLs ‘to-do’ lists. It was an extremely frustrating time, but I am sure all SBLs will agree that the hours spent online ordering vouchers was worth it in the end knowing that our pupils were not going hungry.

Personally, I had already been heavily involved in catering since 2013 when the UIFSM plans were first announced. I was set on a path with no going back! Like most SBLs I am a person who puts 100% into whatever I am involved with, and I became fully invested ensuring school meals provided food that was not only healthy and nutritionally balanced but lunches that the children wanted to eat and enjoy.

In 2014 the primary school where I was SBM outsourced to a bespoke catering contract and we more than doubled our take up of meals from around 100 a day to 250 and then up to 350 on some days within the first term (83% of total pupils and 99% of infant pupils). Three years later when the contract was up for renewal, we took the plunge and moved to an in-house provision. The year after when the school joined a MAT we set up an trust wide in-house provision and LEO Catering was born. Currently the seven kitchens and 30 staff provide 2,000 meals a day and importantly has made a profit each year which has been reinvested into upgrading equipment including a whole kitchen refit in one school and enables the provision to be self-funding.

I am passionate about sharing my experience in order to help other SBLs have the confidence to tackle catering and improve the provision provided to children across the country.

If you would like to hear more about how you too could improve catering provision in your school, come and see Nicky speak at our EdExec LIVE South event September 30, click here to book your tickets now!

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