Kemi Atijosan is the managing director of Eagle Solutions Services, a London-based catering consultancy company that assists schools to provide the best possible food, health, education, and skills for life for their pupils. In an article which originally appeared on LinkedIn, Atijosan shares her views on why a change of direction is needed in the school meals industry.
School catering in the UK is an ever-changing landscape. Some of these changes are subtle and some are not. However, as someone who has been working in the school meals industry for over 40 years, and have watched and participated in the changing landscape, I believe the school meals industry needs a change in philosophy.
Currently school meals as an industry is still very largely contracts dominated and not focused on the children. The children that eat school meals on a day-to-day basis are the main stakeholders of the industry, yet the industry is not sufficiently child centred. Its widely known that the reality of what happens on the ground is different. There is a disparity between what people say they will do and the ‘work’ they do, and I think the government has a large part to play in the problem.
The UK government provides funds for the service, sets targets, standards, and legislation frequently, but does not monitor how the funding is spent to achieve the objectives set. Additionally, the streams of funding that go into school food lack clarity. This lack of clarity makes it difficult to administer funds and ensure that they are all accounted for in a way that demonstrates a good return on investment to the taxpayer and ultimately for the future of our children. Since there is no meaningful monitoring of the standards that are set, there is no measurement. What does not get measured does not get monitored and what does not get monitored does not have to be achieved.
So, where did it all go so wrong?
I think it started a long time ago in the early 1980s as a political ideology. School meals in London used to be run by the Inner London Education Authority [ILEA], which became large and unwieldy. The central government had had enough and was determined to break up the Inner London Education Authority. With ILEA broken up in London, it was decided that a free market would be created within school meals. This was heavily dominated by the local authorities who managed their own services. Legislation was brought in for compulsory competitive tendering; to break the monopoly of local authorities. When compulsory competitive tendering started, quality went out of the window, and it was about who could offer the cheapest service going. Over the years until the early 2000s, the quality of school meals deteriorated until we had the ‘turkey twizzler scandal’ that led to the “Feed Me Better” campaign spearheaded by Jamie Oliver.
What can be done to make a change?
There are several measures that need to take place. I think that if the standards that are being set are to be met, I very much think that school food should become part and parcel of education and not just something that is done to the children. It should be part of what Ofsted inspects as a measure of a good school. When we separate food from learning, it becomes another driver of inequality in educational attainment. When children from disadvantaged backgrounds must contend with hunger before they even enter the classroom, the burden and worry of food insecurity creates a barrier to learning. Hunger then leads to children not been able to concentrate in the classroom. Soon, children will fall behind their peers and that then leads to other problems which could manifest in anxiety and poor behaviour. A school meal needs to be an integral part of education so that the children start from a level playing field. This will ultimately benefit the nation in future with improved educational attainment, reduction in healthcare costs and improved productivity levels. This will help the UK to compete favourably with the rest of the world.
Secondly, funding: there should be a clearer funding system that makes it possible to set targets for outcomes including educational, economic, health and social wellbeing. These outcomes can then be measured and monitored as part of a school’s performance targets. This will help school leaders to easily account for their funding as there will be clear criteria for measurement, whether their school food is provided by a contractor, or they are doing it in house.
Thirdly, education; we need to educate parents more about what school meals can actually do so that they can be equipped to ask the right questions of their children’s schools and local authorities. If a meal is being provided, it is not just about all singing and all dancing menus on the wall, it is actually about the food that is on the plate for the children.
Fourthly, I think there needs to be significant investment made into the skills of the people who work in the industry and in their remuneration. I am yet to find a university graduate that you ask; do you want to go into the hospitality industry? Their answer may probably be yes; then you ask them about school meals, and you will get either an eye roll because it is not glamorous or a puzzled look because they do not know what you are talking about.
School meals staff are often looked down upon; they go into their school kitchen from the back door and leave the same way. They often never really integrate with the rest of the school.
It is time to make serious investments to upgrade the training and skills of the workforce so that they can take advantage of technological improvements and knowledge to improve the standards of school meals. As part of the monitoring regime for contracted services, mechanisms must be in place for contractors to demonstrate how their staff have engaged in continuous development programmes. It is rare to find young people wanting to join the school meals industry and so now we have a massively ageing population of school meals workers. If steps are not taken to improve the status of working in school meals, working conditions and pay of the workforce, it's going to get worse, and the gains of the past few years will be completely reversed.
Who is bridging the gap?
At Eagle Solutions Services Ltd, we have a completely different model to anybody else. We are not contractors; we are consultants, and our aim is to get the children in the school to be the shareholders of their school meals. We ensure that we help headteachers who are really keen to integrate food into learning in their school. We support them to be able to view food not just as something that happens to the children at lunchtime but as a holistic part of the education they provide. We encourage them to invest their time and invest in their service. Not only is it economically more viable for them, but it also provides them with the control and flexibility they need as an educational institution. This enables schools to do all the things that are achievable with food.
Food can be creatively used to resolve most of the problems in a school, such as behavioural problems, bullying, absenteeism, and academic attainment. We support schools to take a holistic view of food. Often schools say that they have a ‘hard to reach community,’ but Eagle Solutions Services believes that there is no hard-to-reach community when it comes to food. In all our partners’ schools, food is the one thing that draws every parent into the school. Schools can use food as a means of partnership with parents by asking them about their culture, their knowledge, their recipes; so the parents become more involved in what goes on in the school.
We also firmly believe that if schools are going to make the most of their catering service, then they need to recognise the catering team as professionals in their own right. For our partner schools in London, we insist that they pay their catering team at least the London living wage.
As we work with schools, we see the changes in children. We see the changes in their habits: how they go from not wanting to touch salad or vegetables to being crazy for salad and vegetables. Children know where their food is coming from, they get involved. When they go on holidays, we ask them to bring recipes back that we can try in the kitchen; we get the children involved in making their own menu.
As a company, we make it our policy not to use the same menu in two schools, so every school has their own menu as a community. Schools make up their own menu and we help them facilitate their ability to design their own menu and reflect the range of cultures that are represented by their pupils in their food. The ethos of the school is reflected in the menus that the school run.
We are bridging the gap by bringing all those things together to make sure that food takes centre stage in learning. You can use food to teach any subject and it is about headteachers and governing bodies recognising that food is the key advantage in their resource box, and they may not be using it to its maximum potential right now. It is an economic tool that can be used for growth. It is an educational tool and a social resource that they need to tap into to create unity in their school communities.
As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is going to be even more important that schools can control and use every resource at their disposal to build the resilience of their communities. We have seen the role that food plays in all our lives during this challenging period in history. The new norm is not going to be different. Food will continue to be the centre in our daily lives and the school setting will be no different.
The next steps
In my opinion, the government should stop pumping money into the school meals industry until we can evaluate all of the money that has been spent over the last few years. I think just throwing good money after bad is not the solution. Personally, I feel that school meals are not the place for PLC companies because the money that is in school meals should be given directly to the children; it should be for their benefit.
The government should review what is happening with school meals at the moment. School meals should be free to all children that are under sixteen years old. If the government refocuses the funding that they put into school meals to make sure that everything actually goes into school meals, then I think it should be free. It should be part of education and if that is the case, everybody would take more interest. Just as there is a national focus on how well children are doing in reading or writing; I think it should become the same with food because without adequate fuel, how will children learn?