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Industry expert: School summary

Former LACA chair Pat Fellows MBE reflects on a whirlwind six months for the school meals industry...

After six months off it is good to be back and contributing to the first edition of Contract Catering Magazine. I am, of course, sad that EDUcatering magazine is now closed, but I am very fortunate to have written in every issue since February 2010. Thank you to all my loyal readers during the past decade.

This year has seen an event that none of us could have expected, and Covid-19 has changed the world and affected our lives beyond our imagination. Since the government imposed the lockdown in March, many schools remained open for the children of essential workers, vulnerable children and some year groups.

As in difficult times in the past, the school meals staff have met the challenge by continuing to feed as many children as possible with the amazing support of the suppliers and manufacturers. In most cases, pupils entitled to free school meals received hampers that were picked up at school or delivered to their home.

A lot of important events have taken place, so here is a short reminder of some of them:

  • In my opinion, the government guidance during this time has been on many occasions ambiguous, confusing and unclear. It is one thing to advise these tasks, but it is different to carry them out at the sharp end. It is also often guidance, and not law, which leads to further confusion.
  • Henry Dimbleby launched part one of The National Food Strategy.

There are three recommendations to government, the paragraph below is the one that affects the school catering industry.

Expand eligibility for the Free School Meal scheme to include every child (up to the age of 16) from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit (or equivalent benefits). Under this recommendation, it is estimated that an additional 1.5m 7- to 16-year-olds would benefit from free school meals, taking the total number of children to 2.6m. This is estimated to cost an additional £670m a year.

It is hoped that this proposal could be included in the government spending review to be announced in November. Some1.5m extra free meals a day across nine years, both junior and secondary in some 22,000 schools, might seem a tall order, but it is something that the industry is both willing and able to fulfil. It would also provide a proper level of support and nourishment to the children of families most in need.

Footballer Marcus Rashford has formed a taskforce with some of the UK's biggest food brands to try to help reduce child food poverty. The group of supermarkets, businesses and charities have backed Henry’s proposals for an independent review of UK food policy including the extension of eligibility to Universal Credit Free School Meals.

The present criteria for Universal Credit Free School Meals is: A transitional protection states that if a child is eligible for free school meals, they will remain eligible until they finish the phase of schooling (primary or secondary) that they are in until 31st March 2022. This means that the entitlement is reviewed when pupils transfer from year 6 to secondary school and when they finish year 11; otherwise the entitlement continues whatever the parents financial and employment situation is until the 31st March 2022.

The Local Authority Catering Association (LACA) has held a number of webinars and issued frequent updates. The national chair, Stephen Forster, met with the minister for school food, Vicky Ford MP, to discuss the importance of providing meals to children. The minister told LACA that she expected all school kitchens to be open and serving school meals from September. She reiterated this point in a letter to LACA following the meeting, where the Minister said: "For the avoidance of any doubt, I want to reiterate the two main points: one, from September we expect schools to return to full mandatory attendance. Two, we expect all school kitchens to be open so that pupils can be provided with healthy, nutritious and tasty meals."

The school catering industry employs some 80,000 people and provides in the region of 4m healthy, nutritious and appetising meals every school day during normal times. It is too early to confirm the present number of meals being served; however, although many schools are providing hot meals, quite a few are only offering a cold sandwich lunch. It is understandable in some of the difficult circumstances of social distancing, but it is very important to get back to a fully operational catering service as soon as possible, preferably after half term at the latest.

Sadly, the virus infection rate is increasing and more that 800 schools (at the time of writing) have had to send some teachers, staff and pupils home to isolate.

Finally, some good news. At the recently virtually-held Public Sector Awards, two of my friends and close colleagues won the most prestigious awards. The first was Andy Kemp, MBE, sales and marketing director for Bidfood, who received the Special Contribution Award. I am sure that you will join me in offering him huge congratulations. Andy does so much for the hospitality industry and its many charities. He is always available to help and support others less fortunate than himself, and above all he is a wonderful and kind person.

The second is Jeanette Orrey MBE, who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. This well-deserved recognition is for her untiring commitment and support to the school meals service. Jeanette’s first passion is to ensure that our school children receive freshly-cooked, nutritious lunches using local and high-quality ingredients. The second is to promote the exceptional work of all the staff, particularly of those that work in the school kitchens. My heartiest congratulations go to them both.