Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Plans to ban junk food from school lunches are under threat because some local authorities are unable to find a contractor willing to provide healthier meals. New rules for school meals were published by the Government last week, limiting children to two portions of chips a week and requiring schools to offer them two portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Some local authorities, however, are struggling to find suppliers able to meet the new requirements, to be funded with an extra 220 million pounds over three years. Bracknell Forest Borough Council received no bids in a recent tendering exercise for its school meals service, while Sheffield City Council received just one.

Sallie Swann, a senior manager in Sheffield's children's and young people's directorate, said: "A number of authorities have received no bids for contracts that are due to start in September." The biggest deterrent for contractors was the uncertainty about the number of children likely to sign up for school meals, Ms Swann added. Numbers have declined by more than 10 per cent over the past 12 to 15 months, after Jamie's School Dinners, Jamie Oliver's television series that highlighted the poor quality of food served in schools. The Local Authority Caterers' Association, which represents council-run and private caterers, estimates that the number of school meals served has fallen by more than 71 million in the past year. Many parents have withdrawn their children from school meals having learnt just how poor the food can be. However, some children are rejecting the new, healthier options.

The Government's new healthy school meals targets aim to increase the number of school meals eaten by 4 per cent by March 2008, and 10 per cent by autumn 2009; but some contractors believe that they cannot run a profitable service unless the figure increases by 10 per cent by 2008. Kevin McKay, chairman of the caterers' association, said that, with so much uncertainty and insufficient funding, caterers were reluctant to bid for school meals contracts. "Spread over three years, the Government's extra 220 million pounds equates to an increase of just 12p per meal - that's the equivalent of just two cherry tomatoes," Mr McKay said. He added that the expected costs of the improved standards would push the price of a school meal from less than 1.50 pounds to 2 pounds a day. "I would question how many parents would pay this," he said.

Tony Eccleston, director of children's services at Bracknell Forest council, said that, although it had approached eight companies to bid for its school meals service, none had wanted to. "Companies were fearful that parents wouldn't pay for the extra costs," he said. Mr McKay said the situation was less clear for the 13 councils whose policy was to close school kitchens altogether.


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