The Big Interview: Mission critical

The Big Interview: Mission critical

LACA’s new chairman is leaving nothing to chance as he intensifies the organisation’s campaign to reinforce the importance of UIFSM, writes Jane Renton.

In theory, Tim Blowers could kick back and relax. Theresa May’s unpopular intention to scrap Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) has been reversed. The reprieve has effectively saved his industry from a return to structural bankruptcy. No one wants to see a return of the bad old days when years of political meddling and, conversely, indifference, led to plummeting quality and the nefarious turkey twizzler. But it could happen again and there is still much work left to do to enforce the new school standards more uniformly. In this regard, Tim is clearly not a man who likes to leave anything to chance. Like the army sergeant major that he once was, he is clearly of the view that the winning of one battle does not guarantee the winning of the war.

But first of all, what is Tim like? Dear reader, he is unassuming, superficially even a little shy, but his conversation reveals a quietly subversive humour and intelligence. He is good and likeable company, all prerequisites of someone who could be highly influential. He is also clearly a man with a plan: he has strategy and the determination to get the job done.

His mission is to intensify LACA’s current efforts to come up with research and data that underpins the importance and necessity of preserving UIFSM and perhaps even make the case for extending universal school meal provision to all primary school children. Hitherto the organisation’s efforts have been largely focused on funding research by the Education Policy Institute, an education think tank headed by David Laws, one of the key Lib-Dem architects of the UIFSM scheme, the results of which should be published either later in the year or possibly early next year.

“We need robust data – it is absolutely crucial,” he says. “I think the industry is very aware that we do not possess the answers to many crucial questions and that’s when we tend to get ourselves into a tight spot.”

That evidence base, he says, should include fundamental information about school kitchens and their numbers, as well as cooks employed by the industry. The demise of the Children’s Food Trust makes the collection of such data even more vital, especially when it comes to persuading policymakers of the importance of the school meals to children’s social inclusion, educational attainment and health.

Tim also plans to work more closely with organisations such as the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) to help LACA acquire more of this missing data. APSE, a not-for-profit organisation, works with over 300 local authorities across the UK and possesses a wealth of data about such issues, but much of that needs to be extended to cover a far more fragmented industry, with increasing numbers of schools at both primary and secondary school level becoming part of autonomous multi-academy trusts (MATS).

“We need a new NI 52 that shows school meal take-up across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,” says Tim, referring to the National Indicator set of statistics for local authorities and their partnership arrangements.

While the collection of evidence remains important, having a few deadly missiles – Kim Jong Un-style – ferreted away in LACA’s personal war chest also might be a rather good wheeze, especially if politicians decide to renege UIFSM anytime soon.

To this end, Tim and his LACA colleagues plan to stage a UIFSM conference involving all the major suppliers involved in the UK food and drinks industry in October or November this year. The aim is not only to secure their involvement, but also get onside the major trade bodies that lobby and support government on their behalf.

“The food, drinks and equipment suppliers’ organisations are represented by some very major bodies which could be very helpful and supportive to us,” he says. “I want them to join up and come together as one massive industry group that has a real voice.”

An initial meeting to begin organising this alliance is due to take place on 22nd September at the London offices of Global Data, the parent company behind Dewberry Redpoint, the organiser of LACA’s events.

“This is a challenging thing to do but we will have a real go at getting that level of support,” he adds.

Having powerful friends in high places clearly matters, but also having the right level of grass root support does as well. Tim plans to visit all of LACA’s regions.

“We’ve been very successful with our events, lobbying and raising LACA’s profile in recent years, but we must not forget our members and the regions,” he says.

He intends to visit as many members as he can around the regions during his year as chair of LACA. He has already started on that quest by visiting 400 school catering staff at Nottinghamshire County Council on 4th September to give them an overview on UIFSM and to talk about about what LACA really stands for in these changing times: “That has not always been clear to them,” he says

He also plans to make time for LACA’s charity of the year, which is the prerogative of each LACA chair to determine. In his case it will be the British Heart Foundation. He plans to launch an omelette making challenge similar to the contests staged by the BBC One TV programme Saturday Kitchen. It should be stated on the record, however, for anyone planning to accept his challenge that he has considerable skills in this department. During his 18 years in the army he frequently found himself knocking out 120 omelettes at a time, cooking with three omelette pans simultaneously. He is unlikely to show any quarter to those valiant enough to take him on.

Tim’s army career began when he went to the Army Catering Corp’s catering college in Aldershot. Although he came from an army family and spent much of his childhood in Malaysia and Germany and later on in Sheffield – he wanted to be a chef rather than a soldier.

“I did not particularly want to be in the army, but I wanted to get the best culinary training I could and the army gave you the very best,” he says.
It involved considerable amounts of hard work, early starts and late night shifts. He cooked on the army’s (un)trusty Hydra, number one burner, something that by rights should have been banned under the Geneva Convention, given its volatile and unpredictable characteristics. (Amazingly, Tim still possess his hair and eyebrows.) He cooked in the Kenyan desert, out in German’s plains and woods, sometimes at sub-zero temperatures, and during the late 70s for fellow soldiers guarding the Maze high-security prison during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He even cooked dinner for the Queen when she inspected the Royal Artillery in Dortmund. Sensibly, advice came from Buckingham Palace beforehand to be told Her Majesty liked simple food. He accordingly assisted in cooking a dinner for 120, serving chilled asparagus as entrée, followed by poached salmon with Dieppoise sauce, then roast fillet of beef with sauce Clamart, and champagne strawberry sorbet as dessert.

He left the army in 1992 and after working in private industry for two years he joined Compass at its Eurest division as an area chef manager in business and industry, where he eventually ended up being responsible for the running of his own contract. In 1997 he went to work for Stoke-on-Trent City Council, where he initially managed the catering services provided by the authority’s social services department, including all of its various homes, day centres and meals-on-wheels services, a job that involved a high degree of planning, preparation and organisation. He later moved to Stoke’s school meals service, where he became second in command. He clearly relished his time there as he talks about “the fantastic people” he worked with, many of whom he still remains in touch. He also cooked again for the Queen, who visited the town.

After 10 years working for the authority, he moved to Derbyshire County Council in 2006 as a senior manager and then as head of catering, where he remains today. The job gives him considerable insight into many of the challenges that LACA now assumes. The authority provides meals for 380 schools, many of which are small and isolated, some with less than 20 pupils.

“We keep thing simple, with a single choice menu with a vegetarian option. We would never not provide for them on financial grounds,” he says.

Meals are brought in from larger feeder schools. There are no central production kitchens in Derbyshire’s catchment, which with a £24m contract remains one of the largest local authority school catering operations in the country. Despite academisation of schools, virtually all of the county’s academies remain as clients of the service, save for one that has departed, but only because it became part of a MAT that had its own arrangements in place.

In an increasingly uncertain political and economic landscape, LACA is the only real body left delivering frontline services, especially in view of the collapse of the Children’s Food Trust, says Tim. This remains a mission critical year and Tim, only the fifth male chairman of LACA in almost 30 years, is busy manning up for the fray. This is no time to sit back and relax.