Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Catering for the cost of change

Money on a plate

The cost of introducing healthier food is a pain barrier some ASCL members may be experiencing, says consultant Mike Pooleman, but improving students' diets and managing finances need not be a nightmare.

If you talk to a group of school leaders about the new nutritional standards for school lunches, you will invariably get a mixed response.

The smug ones will say: "We're already well on our way - not a big deal." A courageous cluster will say: "We can do this!" and enthusiastically venture to keep or bring the operation in house. The rest will call for the cavalry with a shout of "find me a contractor!"

As an independent catering consultant, I have carried out a lot of work with colleges, academies and schools in challenged areas that shows just how instrumental healthy eating can be in improving behaviour.

It was around 2000 that people started talking about the connection between poor behaviour and the food on the plate. That's when I decided to leave the finance-driven end of the market to work with companies more interested in quality.

The 'right' solution depends on each institution's needs - whether that's running meals themselves or finding best value through tendering.

For colleges and schools where sixth forms are involved, the whole thing becomes highly complicated because older students are afforded greater choice under the government standards, but they still need to fit in with some of the rules.

The biggest worry is usually the cost implication. Once all the 'contraband' is off the menu, will it cost us money?

Phasing in healthier standards can help ease the impact on the budget, for example by keeping the vending machines for breaks and turning them off over the lunchtime period.

By introducing additional healthier options gradually each year (new year 7s will not miss what they have never seen), both the quality and financial targets can be sustained.

Weaning young people off chocolate and crisps requires inventiveness. One school, for example, discovered that pupils would not automatically go for a pot of organic yoghurt. But if this was presented attractively in a sundae dish decorated with fresh raspberries and strawberries, they might.

Labour costs

This brings in one major cost implication: additional labour. Preparing fresh dishes takes more time. That means paying for more production hours or being prepared to pay a higher premium to ensure contractors meet the required standard.

Some schools have helped speed up fresh food production by providing skills training for existing staff and restructuring their working day; others have opted to employ an extra member of staff for up to 15 hours a week.

Other cost considerations include equipment, creating more fridge space instead of freezers and investing in the type of vegetable peeling machines we used to see in institutions 15 to 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, most schools and colleges have no option but to absorb these costs from elsewhere in their budgets, be it from cleaning services or development of ICT.

A small number of schools have secured grants of around £4,000 from the Soil Association (the UK's leading charity promoting organic food and farming), on condition that meals provide 50 per cent of students' nutritional needs, that 50 per cent of the food is produced within 50 miles of the school, 30 per cent of it is organic and 75 per cent unprocessed.

Against the additional expense is the reality that students are choosing to spend their money elsewhere, in chip shops and news agents. It's therefore vital to involve staff, parents and students when trying to encourage them to eat on site.

Offering healthier food at lower cost, at least initially, is one way to get parents and students on board. The loss can be offset by charging premium prices for some of the less healthy foods such as chips.

As the uptake of healthier food increases, prices can then be balanced out. Another way to involve parents is to put menus on a website. If parents can see their children are being well fed at school or college, it can take the pressure off catering at home.

Cashless card system

Around 25 per cent of secondary schools have now introduced cashless card systems to ensure dinner money is spent in the canteen, rather than on snacks and the high street.

The cards can be topped up via validator machines, cheque payment or by credit and debit card at www.parentpay.com and limits can be imposed on the amount a student can spend each day. Loyalty points can also be linked to the purchase of healthy foods, with prizes awarded at the end of term for those who buy wisely.

A tiny minority of institutions have even introduced finger print recognition and eye recognition systems, which overcome the problem of students losing cashless cards.

Installing such systems isn't cheap, at around £20,000 to £25,000, but if the system is also used for other activities such as registration, library, and paying for materials and outside activities, the cost of installation can be spread across other sections of the budget.

Harnessing the support of teachers to improve supervision at meal times (students hate queuing) is another common concern. Incentives might include offering staff free meals in return for duties - at least the improved meals will be ones they want to eat.

In every case the starting point has to be a thorough audit of the current position, followed by the creation of a firm strategic vision of where the school or college wants to be.

A good independent consultant will charge around £750 to spend a day on site working with the catering team, the student council and the senior leadership team to tease out all their objectives and look at the most cost-effective way for these to be met.

Schools and colleges that then elect to go in-house will benefit from having a catering manager who fully understands nutritional standards, pricing policies and the labour implications involved. He or she may also need to call for outside help in presenting and marketing the offering in a way that will appeal to young people.

Contract catering

Schools and colleges that opt to use a contractor can use a consultant to meet with stakeholders and help them draw up a robust specification which can be matched to 'best value' companies.

The criteria for choosing a contractor will differ depending on the overall objectives. If a school simply wants to hand over responsibility to a contractor which will meet the basic government guidelines at minimum cost, it is best advised to stay within the local authority and use a large group contractor that can offer cost savings through the efficiencies of scale.

If, however, a school or college is looking for a very bespoke service in which the contractor brings improved marketing and catering expertise, but manages the existing staff and uses existing suppliers with which the school/college has already established preferable rates, then it will benefit from a small local contractor who places an emphasis on partnership working and has a real interest in the quality of food and the students who consume it.

In all cases, institutions should bear in mind that while it is often easier to budget with a contractor (who will usually charge between six and ten per cent of turnover) the downside is that once the standard is set, the school/college loses some control and the ability to change the approach during the contract period.

It is therefore vital that the specification is right from the start so that everyone knows what their responsibilities are and what flexibilities are available to them. Trying to renegotiate service levels halfway through the year because you want to change your pricing policy, reduce staff levels or even shut aspects of the service down for a limited period is a problem best avoided.

There is no doubt that the introduction of new nutritional standards is a major challenge for schools.

A typical secondary with a roll of 1,200 students is used to breaking even on catering. Now it faces having to absorb subsidies of between £5,000 and £10,000 in the first year in order to introduce healthier eating - money it has no choice but to find from other parts of the school budget.

As the uptake of healthy meals increases over a period of time, that subsidy will decrease accordingly and most schools should start to break even again after three to four years.

However, with expert planning, a willingness to try new approaches and the commitment of the whole school community, education has the opportunity to serve up a better future for the young people in its charge.

Mike Pooleman is a former hotel and restaurant chef who has worked in the education arena for more than 30 years. In the 1990s he was responsible for managing the catering in 247 schools and colleges in the south of England. He founded RM&C Consultants Ltd in Kent May 2000, specialising in catering, cleaning and facilities management in independent and state schools.

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