The EDUcatering Forum headed to Birmingham on 8th November, where Brexit and political and economic uncertainty sat high on the agenda.
On the day where US citizens were heading to the polls, thoughts at the EDUcatering Forum turned to the future and how current political and economic uncertainty could affect the school meals industry.
Delegates gathered at Austin Court in Birmingham for the second EDUcatering Forum of the year, our fifth in total, for a day of insight and thought-provoking discussion.
Opening the conference, EDUcatering’s Jane Renton noted that while there was no set theme of the day, a feeling of “rugged self-reliance” rang out from the list of speakers we were about to hear from. Covering sustainable meals, holiday hunger, revitalising school lunches to rising obesity, each speaker touched on a subject that all 21st century caterers have to tackle.
The keynote speaker was Anna Taylor, executive director of independent think tank, Food Foundation. Her talk was highly relevant, as the thank tank had just published startling figures on the low consumption of vegetables in the UK. Veg Facts reveals that one in 10 primary school children and one in four secondary school children eat less than one portion of vegetables a day. Of the vegetables they do eat, 17% of it comes from pizza toppings and baked beans and other highly processed foods. 95.5% of 11 to 16-year-olds eat less than 3.5 portions of vegetables a day and this is only slightly lower among five to 10-year-olds, at 79.1%.
But Anna highlighted another, far more worrying fact. That obesity rates double in children living in the most deprived areas of the UK compared to the least deprived regions.
“8.4m people in the UK are classified as ‘food insecure’”, she said. Taylor’s talk on food security highlighted the huge divide between rich and poor and how closely poor diets are related to economics.
“We have had our biggest leap in child obesity in six years. Things are getting worse and they are likely to continue to get worse,” warned Taylor, pointing to the uncertainty of the UK’s position in the global food market on leaving the EU as a major factor of this uncertainty.
Taylor explained that while dietary inequality certainly applied to fats and sugars, it is actually at its greatest divide when looking at fruit and vegetable consumption.
“Unhealthy foods are three times cheaper and we can see this physically in our children. Year 6 children from more deprived areas are 1cm shorter than those in the least deprived areas. They are facing missed life chances as they grow up.”
Taylor and the Found Foundation are lobbying government to make a change to reverse food inequality but she warns that Universal Infant Free School Meals are “very much in danger”. “In any circumstances, something that costs £600m a year is vulnerable. The onus is on all of us to build up an evidence base as such little monitoring is done by the government. This is a political football.”
She called for greater data gathering because strong data, particularly on secondary schools where she lays a case for universal free school meals, will only happen if there is a case for it.
Tackling another huge inequality is Cardiff County Council catering services. Judith Gregory, senior client officer of education catering at Cardiff Council and Katie Palmer of Food Cardiff, explained how they have been running a project providing universal free meals during the school summer holidays.
The project has been a huge success in tackling inequalities through holiday food and sport enrichment. Wales has one of the highest rates of child poverty at 31%, with 44,000 children in poverty in Cardiff alone, so the need for such a programme, even if it is just three days a week for four weeks, is a lifeline for some families.
What was rather startling about the requirement for this programme comes from positive action elsewhere. Wales runs a free breakfast programme during school term as well as providing free school meals to those entitled, and so when it comes to the holidays this can have a huge impact on the family budget.
Thankfully, as Judith explained, lots of different groups came together to form a steering group to look at piloting a holiday food programme. The group secured funding and the scheme began in 2015.
“Key to the success of the pilot was that we ran it in schools using the staff who already work there so the children are familiar with them and the staff are aware of the children’s individual circumstances.” Of course, this also gained the support of the trade unions and the local government for creating local jobs for people in the summer.
During the pilot, 1,000 meals were served to 171 children. Last summer the scheme was expanded to serve 6,100 meals to 416 children and now, Judith, Katie and the team are supporting five other local authorities in Wales across 18 schools to help them implement a similar programme.
“Holiday provision has to be embedded in policy,” said Katie. Communication is also vital if holiday hunger is to be tackled nationwide. “Catering teams are good at talking to each other in Wales,” Katie said. “There is interest from 18 local authorities to run a programme in the future. But you need to secure funding and you need to persuade health, education, sport organisations, all at a local and national level. This is why evaluation is so important as securing funding can be difficult.”
Reformulating school meals
The EDUcatering Forum then took a turn from poverty to wealth and a new scheme by Sodexo to totally revolutionise the sustainability of the meal on children’s plates.
It has been running a pilot project in eight of its independent schools called Green and Lean, where the basic ethos is to reduce meat content, up the veg and lower the carbon footprint of each plate of food.
The project is fascinating and it is really quite surprising at how well it has been received by pupils. Jane Renton writes about Green and Lean in more detail on page 16 where she interviews Sodexo’s executive chef Tom Allen, but the idea came about through a global partnership between the caterer and WWF, with the steering of Sodexo’s corporate responsibility manager, Edwina Hughes.
“We wanted to tackle environmental challenges and nutritional challenges,” she told the audience. “We know that the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than transport. Sustainable meals are a neat answer to those challenges.”
There are ten principles to the meals:
- Plant-based foods account for at least two thirds of the volume (g) of each meal
- Animal protein accounts for no more than one third of the volume (g) of each meal
- Fruits and vegetables are sourced according to seasonality
- Refined grains are replaced with whole grains
- No salt is added to the finished meal
- Sugar is Fairtrade and added sparingly to meals
- Dairy products that are lower in fat should be used
- All fish is MSC certified; pork and chicken is Freedom Foods certified; beef is British.
- All meals are served to standardised portion sizes
- Sustainable meals cost no more than existing meals
“We took some of our existing meals and gave them a Green and Lean twist,” explained Tom. “We’d use lean beef or swap to wholemeal pasta and for every 1kg of meat we add 1.5kg of vegetables. What was really important was that none of this could affect the taste.”
During taste tests the team didn’t tell pupils of the change and their reaction was wholly positive. And to emphasise this, Tom demonstrated one of the dishes live on stage for the audience to try. He found that cuisine from Africa and Asia was a lot easier to meet the Green and Lean criteria as there is less focus on meat and much more use of spices. For instance, the lamb patty he served during the Forum contained lots of spices, replacing the need for sugar and salt.
Tom and his team created 10 Green and Lean recipes for the pilot and within six weeks there were already huge sustainable savings. More than 19,000 Green and Lean meals were served during this time, equating to 1.1kg of fruit, vegetables and pulses and equivalent of the whole weight of a cow in meat was saved, as well as 5,000kg of carbon. Each meal had a carbon reduction of 12%.
Following its success, Tom and his team are working on 30 more Green and Lean meals which will roll out to all of Sodexo’s independent schools from January.
“We have tried to keep the meals cost neutral because we didn’t want to make it a premium offer, that you need to pay £2 more to have a really good diet,” said Edwina.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” added Tom. “It’s not just about reducing the amount of meat. It’s easy to look to international cuisine and vegetarian countries where the flavours are more bold. The hard bit has been the classics and the next challenge will be the grab and go market.”
“It is going to be really interesting and exciting to see what happens now. This has been three years in the making but it is only just starting now,” said Edwina.
What is sustainability?
While Sodexo spoke of nutritional and environmental challenges, Amy Fetzer, head of research at Footprint and author of Climb the Green Ladder, asked what sustainability really means. The term sustainability gets thrown about all the time, but it can mean so many different things to different people.
“All it means is to sustain an action indefinitely,” she explained. “It’s about bringing together healthier people and a healthier planet. We have a looming obesity crisis and one-third of carbon emissions are from food. This is something we can’t ignore and sometimes sustainability is about taking things back to basics: we need more plants and less meat.”
Some schools run a meat-free day but it is a controversial move. Amy argued that there needs to be a conscious behaviour change to our ingredient choices, stating that it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of beef.
“It is important to talk to the supply chain about how food is grown and produced. We need to start asking questions to suppliers as the more they realise we care the more they will do something about it.”
Amy suggested that local doesn’t always mean it is the most sustainable option. And when it comes to animal welfare, she noted that while certification costs more, eating less meat will bring costs down.
“How can the inhumane treatment of animals mean something is cheaper? We talk about ‘making a good choice’ but really we need to think that buying something that is not certified is making a bad choice.”
School caterers are some of the best people to ask about food allergies. With the number of children diagnosed with a food allergy increasing, they have to be so vigilant. But how informed are they about what to do in the event of an anaphylaxis shock and how serious are the allergies of their charges?
Barry Moore is performance director at B&I contract caterer Gather & Gather and a trustee of the Anaphylaxis Campaign. He spoke to delegates about the harsh truth of food allergies. Rather than tell the audience what they already know about legislation, Barry gave a memorable talk on the devastation of anaphylaxis caused by a food allergy.
“The rise of the allergy has caught us on the back foot,” he said, noting that the majority of chefs have never been trained in allergies because there had never been any real need to until now. Barry’s 13-year-old daughter has a serious nut allergy and his experiences and obvious fears about growing up, becoming independent, and controlling her own allergy, made everyone stop to think.
“With secondary school comes a strong desire for independence,” he said. The Anaphylaxis Campaign is now encouraging operators and sufferers to have confidence. For operators, to know how to confidently deal with a customer with an allergy and for those with an allergy to confidently speak to an operator about their meal choice – or indeed to have the confidence to walk away from a restaurant if it’s not safe.
As we were in Birmingham, the EDUcatering Forum heard from Brian Cape, business development manager at Cityserve for Birmingham City Council. Brian looks after a huge local authority service, producing 700,000 meals a day and a £41m turnover, yet has managed to create a £2m annual surplus. The secret? Realising that there is no one size to fit all.
“Every school has its own menu. Each chef creates meals from a pack but tailors them to their kids,” he explained. “We have such a vast demographic in Birmingham that we have to treat each school differently.”
Always keeping in mind the Cityserve ethos that ‘it’s all about the kids’, every penny is reinvested back into the service and the service never chases after tenders.
“Devolved budgets are a problem and there is lots of competition,” he said, “but it enables us to keep our knives sharp and we have to always be on top of our game.”
Brian believes that extras to the main lunch service, such as the CityKitchen Live training and development engagement days and a partnership offering employment to disadvantaged young adults, helps to retain Cityserve’s business and ultimately have a positive effect on the community.
“Civic collaboration is so important,” he said.
The caterer is even working with local hospitals to create menus that children are used to having at school so that there is something familiar in their unusual surroundings.
Brian acknowledged that academisation and rising food prices as a result of Brexit – he cited 10-15% rises by some of his suppliers – are major challenges but stressed that innovation will overcome these issues.
Last to speak at the EDUcatering Forum was Peter McGrath, immediate past chair of LACA, who gave an animated talk on just some of the issues that LACA is tackling today and into the future. His talk was full of optimism and Peter reminded delegates of the furore of Jamie Oliver’s criticism of school food, the creation of the School Food Trust and the announcement of a review into school meals. What came of this? A huge improvement in school meals following Oliver’s TV programme, nutritional standards and the School Food Plan.
Looking to the future, the School Food Plan Alliance will take the Plan forwards and Peter stressed that throughout all of these challenges the industry must promote and share best practice. “Sharing what you do can make a difference,” he said. “Ask how do we ensure that a child has the best start in life.”
Child poverty is an issue that is particularly close to Peter’s heart and he continues to keep it in the forefront of people’s minds. “It’s not just about food, it’s about lowering the learning gap. There is cross-party support for holiday provision and we need to turn all of these ideas into action,” he said.
It was an interesting day of debate and discussion that certainly invigorated the audience. Because no matter if the issue was about funding a holiday food project, having the confidence to deal with a serious food allergy or securing the future of our food in the UK, every caterer has to have a little bit of rugged self-reliance to carry on through this uncertainty.