Catering for schools in Plymouth

Brad Pearce - 19 February 2013

Brad PearceAt the Education Catering Service in Plymouth, we provide our high quality, locally sourced, fresh and seasonal school food to the majority of primary and special schools across Plymouth, as well as individual contracts with newly converted primary and secondary academies.

Applying for the Food for Life Catering Mark

In 2005, when I came into post, the team immediately started work on reviewing all our school kitchens: were they fit for purpose? And - even more importantly - was the food we were sourcing and putting on our menus fit for purpose?
In 2006, we made some improvements in the specifications for the food and ingredients we wanted to buy, but we still didn’t get it right. There was still too much processed food and the suppliers still didn’t have buy-in to the process.
Moving forwards, we started to be able to have a better dialogue with a number of schools who also thought that they could be doing more. This led us to think about the different models which could help us and we encountered the Food for Life Partnership. The Food for Life principles and processes paralleled what we wanted to achieve: staff in school kitchens preparing raw ingredients and cooking food from scratch using locally sourced, fresh and seasonal ingredients. We decided that this was a model we wanted to work with.

Gaining the Catering Mark

There was never a barrier from the Council towards us working for the Catering Mark but it did require some initial groundwork to embed the principles. 
We decided that we wanted local food but due to procurement regulations we couldn’t include this as a specific award criteria. What we could do, though, was ask potential suppliers how they could support us in delivering on the principles of Food for Life.
Our successful suppliers understood this and continue to support us in this aim.  Our meat supplier in Cornwall also works with our fish supplier to store and deliver our fish fillets, our fresh fruit and vegetable supplier is also our organic dairy and organic herb  supplier, our main grocery supplier has been proactive in helping to source organic flour and free range eggs – which is all fantastic.
It wasn’t always an easy message to get across. When we decided that we would use Pollock locally caught and landed at Plymouth and at Newlyn in Cornwall, instead of pre-formed coated product, the reactions of our catering staff were very interesting. They were worried it wasn’t all the same shape and that the children might not be able to cope with the bones!
But here we are now with two Food for Life Flagship Schools in Plymouth. 

The positive effect of achieving the Catering Mark

It allows us to promote the benefits of our healthy, freshly prepared school food at a time when there is a real focus on driving costs down and poor quality food in other sectors of the food business. In real terms, we have seen a 30% increase in the number of meals served over the period since becoming a Catering Mark holder: a recognition of the quality of food we now serve. 

Customer response

Overall, customers (students, parents and schools) view it as a positive development and value the food provenance and assurances the award offers.  The Council is proud of the service’s achievements in becoming the first local authority caterer in the country to achieve the Gold Catering Mark.
We serve around 8,000 meals a day: over 1.5 million meals each academic year.

The advantages of the Catering Mark

The advantage is the assurances that it provides to customers about food provenance and the benefits to the local economy through local procurement and purchasing.
An independent report by the New Economics Foundation in 2011 found that in Plymouth, the change in spending on seasonal, local produce is valued at £384,000 per year as a result of adopting Food for Life Partnership practices. This spending into the local economy is found to generate £1.2 million of value per year, a return of £3.04 for every £1 spent.

During the current issues surrounding meat in the supply chain, it has been very easy for us to assure customers about the origins and quality of the meat on our menus.

The future

There’s so much coming up over the next year that’s both positive and exciting…
As a result of School Funding Reform we have had to delegate the entire budget for school food to schools from April 2013. This could have resulted in a fragmentation of the service and closure of school kitchens as witnessed elsewhere in the country. However, working with schools we have had a 100% return of the budget under a “pooled” arrangement for the year. We have also set up a Technical Steering Group  to look at ways of remodelling the service for 2014 onwards.  There is a lot of work to do in a very short space of time!
Secondly, since last autumn we have been operating a trial in one part of the city to produce and deliver fresh, hot and seasonal meals for community meals clients (meals on wheels) rather than the expensive, pre-prepared frozen and re-generated meals that they currently receive.
Our intention is to roll-out the production and delivery of freshly, prepared hot lunches using local, seasonal and organic ingredients from a small number of school kitchens across the city. This has resulted in increased employment opportunities and increased food purchases through our local suppliers - with a possibility for expansion as a traded service to other city residents and also offer an additional tea-time option.
Finally, as a founder member of Food: Plymouth we will be working to continue to support this initiative and strengthening and building links with the university, NHS Plymouth and other stakeholders and local food producers and suppliers across the South-west.
Our work with Food for Life and holding the Gold Catering Mark was an important element in us being able to demonstrate to schools that we were at the forefront of providing high quality school food and that we also hold the same principles which supports the local economy and the health and well-being of children and young people.  
Brad Pearce is the Education Catering Manager for Plymouth City Council. Plymouth City Council were awarded a Gold Food for Life Catering Mark in 2012. The award covers 70 Primary and Special schools, one nursery and one Alternative Complementary Education unit. Plymouth County Council are one of only three local authorities to achieve a Gold Catering Mark for their school meals.

The Education Catering Service is a member of the LACA (the Local Authority Caterers Association).

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