Loosening school food standards ‘not acceptable’ LACA members told
Speaking at the association’s Spring Seminar on March 8th at the Stratford Manor Hotel, chair Michael Hales told delegates: “The suggestion from Government that Brexit-related food shortages and costs could be tackled by relaxing school food standards is, I think, unacceptable.”
He was updating members on his recent activities as chair and the issues the LACA leadership was grappling with.
“I’m already six months into my year in office and since September I have met many MPs and campaign groups, including Nadhim Zahawi, parliamentary under secretary of state for children and families.
“The topics we’re tackling include looking to check the spread of fast food outlets near schools. There are, on average, 23 fast food outlets for every secondary school and in many cases they are targeting pupils by deliberately under-cutting school food prices to tempt them.
“Planning laws can be used, but often the local authority will be over-ruled if they do use them. The London Mayor’s Office, though, is actively looking at a ban within 400m of schools and we very much support that.
“We’re also concerned about the funding of universal infant free school meals. The £2.30 cost per meal has not been raised since its introduction five years ago and urgently needs to be reviewed in the light of higher food prices and tighter budgets.”
Jo Ralling of the Food Foundation talked to delegates about two campaigns - Peas Please and ‘Eat Them To Defeat Them’.
She said the bare facts were that 80% of children, 95% of teenagers and 80% of adults did not eat enough vegetables and the two campaigns aimed to increase consumption.
Peas Please offers catering operations, restaurants, retailers and food and drink companies the chance to make pledges to increase the take-up of vegetables.
As examples, she mentioned two contract catering companies. BaxterStorey had pledged to include two vegetable portions with every main course, and to increase the volume of vegetables it offered by 20% using special promotions. Bartlett Mitchell had made similar pledges but also planned to engage with staff to get them eating more vegetables.
She said the number of pledger companies was growing all the time and the latest Peas Please target was to have the UK consuming an extra 100m portions of vegetables.
An idea that had grown out of Peas Please was the TV advertising campaign called ‘Eat Them To Defeat Them’ which took an innovative approach to the message.
The result was an ‘apocalyptic’, one-minute ad in the style of a film trailer that told children their help was need to stop the world being taken over by vegetables.
ITV had offered £2m of free advertising space and professional ad agencies had similarly offered their expertise to produce a professional ad.
“We’re delighted with the response so far. Supermarkets are now following up with Eat Them To Defeat Them point of sale, we have a network of 150 chefs behind us now and school caterers have started to get involved and carry the posters.
“It also works well on social media, it has already achieved an 80m ‘reach’, while we have produced reward packs for children that include stickers if you defeat a vegetable, free samples and taster sessions.”
Meg Longworth, lead nutritionist at Chartwells, offered a presentation about allergens and special diets.
She said: “At Chartwells special diet requests in primary schools have tripled since 2016, with some sites having up to 20 different diets to create as well as their main menus.”
She said that under such pressure, and when the consequences of getting it wrong could be so tragically serious, it was essential that menus were designed that could be safely and easily used yet did not involve the caterers tackling the complex number of potential allergens.
“The number of people with allergies is rising and there is increased awareness and raised expectations on us to cater safely.
“We need to know where we have to draw the line. Having one allergen is fine, the problem really comes if you have a child who has allergies to multiple allergens and is perhaps coeliac or has a religious dietary preferences and it becomes so restrictive and scary for the catering teams as it is so complex.
“A national strategy working group is being set up and we’re looking for people to get involved so that we can have a single approach to special diets. That would seem to be a sensible thing.”
School caterers who want to get involved can email their interested to: email@example.com.
Next up it was the turn of vice chair Stephen Forster and vice chair-elect Jacqueline Blake to tell the seminar about the work being done to update the LACA ‘vision’ and its mission statement.
Forster said that LACA was looking to develop its accreditation scheme as something that schools could show to Ofsted that endorsed its commitment to healthy eating.
“To continue to be relevant, we need to move on.
“For instance, we want to be the ‘go to’ source of information, leadership, advice and support for caterers, schools, academies.”
Jackie Blake said that the LACA Mark would be a healthy rating scheme for schools and academies that had four strands - compliance, food & dining room experience; people; sustainability & environment.
“What does good like? What standards should you have? We hope to develop questions from today’s informal consultation that will be sent out to the wider membership.”
Sarah Johnson of Alaska Seafood told delegates about her company’s sponsorship of LACA’s Adopt A School Chef programme, which was being spun off as a standalone event after four years as part of National School Meals Week.
“It gives school chefs a chance to work in other kitchens and raise the profile of the work of school chefs in the wider hospitality industry.
“We already have 80 venues lined up, including the Shard, the US Ambassador’s Residence, Buckingham Palace and Billingsgate Fish Market among many others.”
Former LACA chair Anne Bull introduced the topic of Workforce Standards & E-Learning Packages to delegates.
Mark Davies, ISS managing director, then described how school chefs in his company had ‘road-tested’ the professional standards to see how they worked. He said it had been a very positive experience.
“We need to raise the profile of the Professional Standards because there is interest out there among our clients that I see.”
And Ashley Reddy of Highfield Qualifications talked through how e-learning could work in staff training and development.
Meanwhile Priya Shah of ICF and Rachel Manners, team leader on nutrition advice with Public Health England, carried out an informal consultation with delegates on the potential impact of amending School Food Standards by reducing sugar and increasing fibre content.
LACA chair Michael Hales also took the opportunity of the seminar to pay tribute to Arnold Fewell, a school caterer, LACA member and disability campaigner, who died recently. Hales said he ‘contributed a great deal to LACA and school meals’, including helping start the annual National School Meals Week, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
And he offered LACA’s thanks and good wishes to Tim Blowers, the immediate past chair of LACA, who is retiring in this month (March).