It’s a funny thing, but the brain tends to remember things in three. The ancient Greeks knew this when they invented the rules of good persuasive rhetoric. Julius Caesar harnessed it with brevity, élan and precision when he informed his senate of victory in battle: veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered.
While it might be a tad presumptuous to claim similar victory for his three LACA challenges, since they are only recently embarked upon rather than completed, Stephen Forster nevertheless displays the same elegant economy of mission and indeed the same sense of strategic purpose, but hopefully, given his more kindly nature, none of the murderous ruthlessness of the Roman general. They involve a mission to end political uncertainty over Universal Infant Free School Meals, the creation of common rules and procedures for handling allergens in schools, and the spearheading of a wider personal legacy, which is to encourage all LACA members’ schools to adopt the Daily Mile walk as part of a wider anti-obesity drive among children.
“I don’t want my year as chair to be defined by what I do for charity, but rather my desire to leave a more lasting legacy as part of the wider anti-obesity campaign,” he tells me right at the outset of our interview.
Significantly, there have been hitherto few LACA chairs from the private sector. As well as LACA Chair, Stephen is also director of business development for Chartwells, the largest school meal provider by far in the country. As a committed school governor at the primary school his daughter once attended, he appears uniquely placed to have a profound understanding of the challenges and opportunities that the school market presents.
A northerner from County Durham, his appointment to the top job in LACA no doubt reflects the changing and fragmented nature of the current school food market as well as the diminishing role played by local authority caterers in the industry. More optimistically, the appointment symbolises a more inclusive industry willing to sink commercial rivalries to pull together to resolve common problems.
Those issues have crystallised into three key objectives in the year of Stephen’s chairmanship and it’s fair to say they represent fairly stiff challenges. They are to resolve continued political uncertainty over the indefinite continuance of free school meals for infants during the first three years of primary school; an agreement over allergen policy for schools, rather than the proliferation of procedures that currently dog and confuse the industry; and what Stephen hopes will be his own personal lasting legacy, which is to encourage all LACA members to persuade their individual schools to engage their pupils in the daily mile, the initiative to get children more physically active as part of the wider anti-obesity drive.
While Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM), introduced in 2014 has proved popular with parents, it has twice come under threat, more recently from former prime minister Theresa May, only for the policy to be reluctantly reprieved under pressure.
“The fear is that UIFSM could be one of those policies that could fall prey to the next round of spending cuts,” he warns, adding that while the latest spending review has pumped an extra £7.1bn of new spending on schools, there was no specific mention of how some of that money might fund school meals.
The subvention, which equates to £2.30 per child for each meal, has not been increased for five years, despite a period of significant food price inflation and perhaps even more significantly, rising labour costs as a result of statutory annual increases in minimum wages.
“All those things are bringing the whole issue of UIFSM affordability to the forefront. There is growing anecdotal evidence that a number of schools are struggling, particularly in London where rises in labour costs have been most marked, ” he says.
The fear is that those schools with smaller roll calls, which have been struggling with school meals costs since the policy was introduced, will encourage children and their parents to stop taking up the benefit, which they are currently legally bound to supply.
“That would be very self-defeating and the danger is that the government could simply turn round and say, ‘parents no longer want it’ “, warns Stephen.
LACA now plans to re-engage with the Department for Education over UIFSM and to remind the department of researched commissioned by the school food organisation last year showing strong acknowledgement by schools that UIFSM had exerted a strong beneficial improvement on pupil behaviour.
Another equally thorny issue involves allergens and how schools manage them. While legislation has increased following the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the young woman who died after buying a baguette from Pret that contained sesame seeds that weren’t listed on the packaging, schools have tended to respond by simply passing the increased risks directly on to the incumbent caterer.
There are yet another three specific issues to be addressed regarding allergens; the requests for special diets in school have exploded, often involving foods that go well beyond the 14 most common major allergens making life far from easy or manageable for kitchen staff; there is a lack of common policy and procedures among caterers, something that becomes painfully apparent when such contracts change hands; the disengagement by some schools and parents as to their involvement and role in handling allergen policy.
While caterers have an obligation to understand food allergies and food intolerances, the very prevalence of allergens, resulting in some school kitchens being expected to provide up to 20 different special diets – is proving worrying and burdensome. Getting it wrong on this front is every caterer’s worst nightmare.
We absolutely want to support children with special dietary needs, but it’s also important to recognise that we work in school kitchens, not in the aseptic conditions of a food factory, so it has to boil down to what is deliverable at the coalface.”
In order to develop those consistent, workable policies over allergen handling in schools, LACA has established three working groups to look at specific aspects of the issue. Later this autumn the organisation will present their conclusions and suggestions to the DfE, which will hopefully create guidelines that might be incorporated by the Food Standards Agency and Public Health England into the revised School Food Standards in 2020.
Last but certainly not least, is Stephen’s own ‘lasting legacy’, but one that involves encouraging children, LACA members and most certainly himself in becoming leaner and fitter by staying physically active.
“When it comes to anti-obesity advice and encouragement, I believe we all in this industry need to walk to talk.”
He has already embarked on a personal mission with his wife, Nicola, to spend at least one day a weekend each fortnight walking through the magnificent countryside of Northumberland close to home.
However, he does not want that to obscure his wider mission, which is to encourage the schools that LACA members work in to encourage the adoption of the Daily Mile, a 15-minute period where children jog, walk or run at their own pace during the school day at a time of the teacher’s choosing.
“I also want to encourage people in our industry who are guiding children to do this, to also get involved, to walk the talk. We cannot just be seen to preach about healthy lifestyles, we have to live it,” he asserts.
The year promises to be a busy one. There is also the independent food policy review, being spearheaded by Henry Dimbleby to consider. LACA has made no secret of its desire to get involved. Stephen has also pledged to build on his LACA predecessor, Michael Hales’s work, particularly about future-proofing the organisation and bringing in new sections of membership, particularly in relation to academies and multi-academy groups.
“We want to be an affordable beacon of support, advice and learning for everyone involved in this industry,” he concludes.
Like Julius Caesar, Stephen my harness the rhetorical power of three, but unlike the Roman general his rule will be one reliant on charm, persuasion and a subtle dry wit, not brute force.