So, as the horsemeat scandal continues to unfold, Iceland boss Malcolm Walker reckons local authorities contracting for school food are partly to blame for the wider issue of the poor quality of some food on sale to us on the high street.
Quite how this argument stacks up is beyond me. We all know that the dismal age of compulsory competitive tendering during the 80s and early 90s had an impact on the quality of food served in schools, sending it in precisely the wrong direction. That’s why things changed. Jamie Oliver began his school dinners campaign; the Children’s Food Trust was created; national legislation was introduced to set minimum standards that all schools have to meet for children’s nutrition; millions of pounds were invested in training for school cooks, kitchen equipment and facilities and support to schools to create healthier menus and recipes. The job’s far from over but how things have changed since then: the legislation means schools now put far more emphasis on cooking from scratch; they serve less processed food; and they have to meet minimum requirements for the meat products they do serve. In their procurement of food, local authorities and schools are required not just to meet those nutritional requirements but also to complete due diligence on those who supply them – they simply can’t look at price alone. Some go the extra mile, wanting to source products locally or striving for specific awards for the provenance of their food. If less reliable parties in the supply chain can’t deliver what they have promised, local authorities and schools are the very unhappy victims of this – not the cause.
Let’s not forget that far from trying to drive down food quality, many local authorities also continue to subsidise school meals so they don’t have to pass on higher costs to parents. In our annual survey last year, of 62 councils who gave us information on their financial expectations, only 10 said they expected to make a surplus. The rest expected to break even or run at a deficit. Feeding kids good food at school isn’t about making profit (much as many would like it to be): it’s about delivering the right service for children.
But there is one area where you could definitely argue a link between poor quality food, supermarkets and schools. The biggest challenge for school caterers is the perception that it’s so much cheaper to make a packed lunch. In survey after survey, teachers report seeing children with little more than a lunchbox full of sugar. Families who are struggling are bombarded with offers on products containing little more than empty calories – the crisps, the chocolate biscuit bars, the processed cheese – and money talks. But it’s a false economy for children’s nutrition, as research repeatedly shows.
Mum might have ‘gone to Iceland’. She’d be better having a chat with the school cook.
Judy Hargadon’s our Chief Executive.