How to achieve excellence in catering

Sue Birchall, long-standing school business manager, discusses how you can ensure you are providing cost-effective and student-satisfactory catering in your school

The days of a school dining hall serving measly portions of rice pudding are, thankfully, behind us – the nutrition of students remains fundamental to their learning and physical development, however. So how can catering services seek to feed hungry stomachs, deliver gourmet meals and skim pennies off an SBM’s budget?

Of all the support services that occur during the school day, catering remains as one of the most important for ensuring that our students are at their best to benefit from their education. As adults, we understand the influence that nutrition has on our performance in every area of our lives; if we are hungry, concentration is difficult and if we do not eat a healthy varied diet our sleep, resilience, physical and mental ability is affected.

School meals were first introduced in 1906 and were free for all students. The idea was that if it was compulsory for children to attend school a hot meal should be provided; initially this was breakfast, with very limited choice. In 1944 it was made compulsory for all local authorities to provide school meals in all of their schools; this was complemented with free school milk for primary children and, at this time, the cost was shouldered by the parent except for those most at need.

School meals were affected by the decision of the Conservative government in the 1980s when the provision was put out to competitive tender. The result was a push to provide cheaper meals by contractors fighting to put meals on the table at the best (often cheapest!) price. This affected the quality of provision and the nutritional value diminished; research suggests that school children received better nutrition in the 1950s than the 1990s. I’m sure you all know the story of the Turkey Twizzler!

The rise in childhood obesity led the government to bring in nutritional guidelines for suppliers – initially demanding written, measured, nutritional information for each product. A more balanced approach is now used, although there are still strict rules around what can be provided.

Schools have the ability to choose how they provide their catering offer but there are things that need to be considered in all settings; government guidelines must be adhered to and many schools chose to outsource their provision. This is a contract, and has to be managed as such. Frameworks are available and it is sensible to look at these as they ensure that the providers are viable and fit-for-purpose.

The provision for primary schools is fairly standardised as the meals are provided at lunchtime and generally follow a weekly menu. Parents and carers have a significant influence on what their children eat so menus need to satisfy adult expectations as well as the statutory requirements. Many primary schools have breakfast and after school clubs; food offerings for these are generally outside of the catering contract in order to enable schools to provide for their different offers.

In secondary the provision is more varied – often offering before school, break time and lunchtime provision. The clientele also tends to be somewhat more demanding due to their ability to make independent choices with little influence from their parents and carers. There is some pressure from what is ‘fashionable’ to eat – for example, panini as opposed to sandwiches – and there is also student expectation in line with their experiences in outside eateries.

The free school meal allowance, which is set centrally, is what the provider and schools can expect as set income; this dictates that students must be able to come and purchase a hot meal, main and dessert for this amount. In the primary phase this is fairly easy to achieve; at secondary level it’s more of a challenge. The rest of the provision needs to be attractive to students to ensure that the customer base is good enough to ensure financial viability.

So how do SBLs ensure that their provision is attractive enough to ensure that it is viable and pays for itself? Here are some ideas.

Going cashless – easy ways to pay help the parents, and make the offer more attractive.

Ability to order online and individual days – often very popular with primary schools, this helps to pick up orders when Mum has run out of bread, for instance. At secondary level, parents re-gain a little control over what their children eat.

Pop-up catering – this is popular in secondary schools but can also include primaries – for instance, having a pizza or pasta stand, salad bar or theme days.

Costing – be aware that students will want to ‘eat with their friends’. It’s important that there’s a varied choice which covers all values. Some parents may not be able to afford to fund all of the time; consider offers such as meal deals and even loyalty cards to get free items – all very attractive.

Pupil voice – as your customer, the opinion of the students is very valid, and can ensure that you are providing food of choice. Have taster sessions for new offers and ask the school council to survey the school community for new ideas and wants. Consider whether school food can be given as prizes; I have funded free school meal as prizes for art competitions – it’s surprising how popular this is, and it helps the provider.

Outside catering – if you can offer your caterer opportunities for further revenue they will be able keen to do some of the above. Use them to cater for school events, prize evenings or staff ‘do’s; it will all help their income, which helps you.

Above all, it is important that your provision is the best for your students. Write it into your business strategy and revisit it often to ensure that it remains fit for purpose.

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