News Analysis: Caterers thrust in media spotlight

Dan Bloch examines how the main UK and previously faceless school catering firms are adapting to the campaign to improve the quality of school dinners.

Channel 4 hit show Jamie's School Dinners has catapulted the shocking general standards of British school dinners up the public policy agenda, with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver railing against the low level of funding per head for meals, the quality of food provided and even the standard of school cooks' training.

The programme, and Oliver's concurrent Feed Me Better campaign, airs amid growing political concern about obesity - 16 per cent of five to 16-year-olds are considered obese and 15 per cent are overweight, according to government statistics.

While the rise in obesity is related to more sedentary lifestyles and increased access to convenience foods, the introduction of healthier school meals is now - partly thanks to the Naked Chef - increasingly seen as a priority by parents and government alike.

Profits to be made

Private catering firms provide meals to about one third of schools in England and Wales, with the rest either prepared by the schools or privatised local authority catering services.

The main UK private catering firms feeling the heat are Sodexho, a wholly owned subsidiary of France-based Sodexho Alliance; Scolarest, owned by global food services giant the Compass Group; and Initial Catering Services (ICS), a division of Rentokil Initial.

Sodexho provides meals to more than 700 UK state schools and its education business is worth around £100m a year. Scolarest does not provide separate figures, but the Compass Group's UK turnover was £2.6bn in 2004, nine per cent of which came from education services. Both Scolarest and ICS each serve 2,000 schools - there are good profits to be made from feeding Britain's schools.

So, who handles PR for the companies in the spotlight and what is their stance on Oliver's campaign?

Sodexho, whose head of government relations is Ruth Smeeth, has a three-member in-house press team and uses PR firm Counsel. Scolarest has a five-member team led by comms director Lesley Potter and employs Citigate Public Affairs and E=MC2 Public Relations for media relations.

ICS's comms is shared between the five-strong Rentokil Initial PR team, led by group external comms manager Tony Stephens, and ICS's two-strong team; its PA work is handled by corporate affairs director Charles Grimaldi.

'We support Oliver's initiative,' says a Sodexho spokeswoman. 'We are already doing a lot of other things. We have decided not to bid for school catering contracts at under 55p a head. We cannot provide the quality that clients want at a lower price.'

The firm has also been running healthy-cooking demonstrations in schools with Ready Steady Cook chef Paul Rankin for the past four years.

Both Sodexho and Scolarest are keen to stress their foods meet government nutritional standards and, in Scolarest's case, those of the Caroline Walker Trust - a charitable organisation dedicated to improving public health through food.

'We have been speaking to our clients about the need for extra money for school meals for the past 18 months to two years,' says Potter. 'And we are just starting to see some signs that they are prepared to allocate it.' Scolarest has also lobbied the Government to increase average spending on primary school children's meals from 45p to 60p-70p a head.

Sodexho made the decision not to bid below 55p a head just last month.

Sue Flook, media manager at the Soil Association, which is campaigning for better nutrition in school meals, says: 'When we first raised concerns about this 18 months ago, the catering companies were quite defensive, saying they were serving what the children would eat, kids would not eat healthy food and that they met government guidelines.

But she does acknowledge: 'It's really interesting that on Jamie's School Dinners, one of the firms said they would offer two different menus - a standard and a healthy option, for example. In 18 months there has been some change.'

But Potter points out that Scolarest's 'Fresh Approach' healthier menu, now being trialled in Durham schools, was first presented to its clients last May.

Some believe the catering companies will have to go further. 'I don't think Scolarest was aware of the strength of feeling,' says Kim Janssen, a reporter for the Camden New Journal, a London weekly paper that has regularly reported on parental dissent over the quality of food Scolarest dishes up.

'The Oliver thing has caught them on the hop. It's not going to go away. They have started to react, for example, by taking Turkey Twizzlers off their menus, but I don't think they have gone as far as they will have to satisfy campaigners,' she adds.

Flawed system

Fiona Gately, a comms consultant and project manager for Feed Me Better, argues that the school meals provision system is flawed. 'Change needs to be led by the Government,' she argues. 'Jamie's campaign has put the spotlight on the need for change, so people start demanding the Government does something.

'Without a central effort, people are not going to effect change on their own. It is easy to say that there is not enough money, but there are constructive ways of addressing the problem, through the structuring of contracts, food specifications and how budgets are allocated through schools and LEAs,' she adds.

There are encouraging signs that changes are afoot. Education Secretary Ruth Kelly announced last month that minimum health standards on fat, salt and sugar content in processed school foods would be introduced in September, while healthy eating in schools will be assessed by Ofsted inspectors.

A further announcement is expected at Easter and the Government will also promote the issue by sending schools a resource pack with ideas on healthy eating and drinking.

Credit to Oliver, then, but as his show has illustrated transforming kids' eating habits will not happen overnight, despite the apparently gathering will for change.

Kate Nicholas, p22.

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