Resource: Case study
Nottinghamshire County Council Caterer was the first Local Authority caterer in the country to provide all its schools – primary and secondary – with Food for Life Silver food. This means that every day 30,000 children in Nottinghamshire eat school meals that are at least 75% freshly prepared with a range of local and organic ingredients. All chicken, eggs and pork are Freedom Food or free-range and no fish from unsustainable sources is served.
Katie Dawes from Nottinghamshire County Council Caterer explains how they have gone about achieving the prestigious Food for Life Silver Catering Mark.
What made you want to achieve the Food for Life Catering Mark?
At Nottinghamshire County Council we started making changes to our school meal service back in 2003 with the appointment of a dedicated Food Development Officer. They were tasked with overhauling the service for both primary and secondary schools.
This meant drastic changes for the existing meal service – new menus were developed with no place for reformed products, frozen ready meals, deep fried food or spaghetti hoops. In 2004 we began a pilot with a new meat-supplier who could source local, outdoor-reared produce. We also sourced fresh, local vegetables for the kitchens.
By the end of 2006 the School Meals Service had seen a major turnaround. New equipment had been installed in kitchens so that meals could be prepared fresh onsite, giving us tighter control over the ingredients, with locally sourced meat and fresh local vegetables. Levels of salt, fat and sugars had also been reduced along with unnecessary additives to create healthier, balanced meals.
We joined the Food for Life Partnership in 2008 as we saw it as an excellent opportunity provide demonstrable evidence of the work we had achieved in the food quality and provenance area – in addition to being able to develop our work and take it to the next level. By taking part in the project we hoped to show our customers that we are passionate about providing local and nutritious food and educating children on growing their own food and healthy eating.
What has been your process for meeting the criteria?
In order to make any necessary changes we needed to work closely with our suppliers to see if we could meet the standards.
Our first port of call was to meet with our meat supplier, Mike Maloney’s Ltd. Maloney’s is a family run business who are very passionate about what they do and the produce they supply. They source as much local produce as possible meaning that for our school dinners we use local produce such as lamb from the Peak District, beef which has been grazing on the banks of the River Trent, and game from Sherwood Forest.
This was followed by meetings with all our other suppliers and producers to ensure they could supply us with products that met the standards, such as MSC fish (assured to be from sustainable stocks). We also aimed to maximise on the local theme and add to the locally sourced meat and vegetables. This was successful when we sourced a local milk supply, local free range eggs and local poultry.
In sourcing local products we also had to make sure that they were established enough to be able to maintain the demand that providing over 30,000 school meals a day would bring. This meant careful planning and consideration into supply and delivery and developing collaborative working between producers and distributors.
What successes have you had from being involved with the Food for Life Partnership?
While this project has been a great challenge for the catering team, the benefits we have seen so far have been outstanding. We are proud to be supporting local communities, not only by purchasing from local producers but also by helping to motivate and develop those people into living healthier lifestyles.
The quality of the meals we are now serving in schools is the best they have ever been. By moving away from the norm of bulk buying and adopting a ‘local’ theme on all aspects of our menu we have been able to improve our meal service and achieve the Food for Life Catering Mark. Our strategy of sourcing local produce direct has meant we have also been able to serve excellent quality food at reasonable prices – and maintain our meal numbers.
Our pupils have started to develop a keen interest in healthy eating. We have also been able to develop their business knowledge through buying back any produce they supply to the school kitchen.
We have received some very positive PR surrounding the Partnership and the produce we are using in our meals, such as R-Oil. We use a natural rapeseed oil in our cooking, produced and supplied from a farm in the Cotswolds. The oil is also being used in various Michelin-starred restaurants across the country – which helped strengthen our promotion of quality ingredients.
What problems have you encountered and how have you overcome them?
In sourcing local producers we had to make sure that they were established enough to be able to maintain the demand that providing over 30,000 school meals a day would bring. This meant careful planning and consideration had to go into supply and delivery and the possibility of linking our smaller local producers with our bigger established contacts.
We therefore had to try and encourage collaborative working with some of our local distributors. The majority of our local producers do not deliver on a large scale so we have had to work hard on promoting what we were trying to achieve to our distributors, and encourage them to change their
products to one of our choice, such as milk from a local dairy and free range eggs.
Overcoming this involved several meetings with producers and distributors to resolve any problems and iron out any concerns. By doing so we were able to discuss the benefits it would bring such as reducing food miles and our carbon footprint.
What costs have been involved in making changes to meet the Food for Life criteria?
Other than an increase in management hours to support the engagement of schools, we have not seen any dramatic costs involved with meeting the Food for Life criteria. As mentioned previously we began making changes to our meal service in 2003, so when we enrolled on the programme we were already meeting some of the criteria - such as using outdoor-reared pork and Freedom Food certified chicken and turkey.
We also found that by contacting local producers directly and setting up direct links we have actually been able to cut out the middle man and save money. This has enabled us to spend more on other quality products such as local game from Sherwood Forest.
What effect have you seen on meal uptake?
As we have applied the standards across all of our schools we have seen a positive increase on meal uptake in primaries. We believe this is down to marketing the products in the right way – to parents through a menu leaflet, providing taster sessions and by attending and promoting our service at parents evenings.
What feedback have you received from staff and pupils?
The feedback we have received from schools has been overwhelming. As we got further into the programme more of our schools signed on to take part. Cooks have reported an increase in knowledge from their pupils. Since becoming involved in the Food for Life Partnership and growing their own vegetables, the pupils have taken more of an interest and are able to recognise more of the produce – meaning they are also more willing to try new things.
Cooks have also reported they have become more involved in school life and they now feel a real part of the school – instead of just an additional service. As the Food for Life Partnership adopts a whole school approach, our cooks have become an integral part of school life and educating the pupils on living healthier lifestyles.
What tips would you give caterers who are thinking about becoming part of Food for Life and how do you plan to sustain Food for Life in the future?
We would encourage caterers to engage all their producers, suppliers, distributors etc in the programme so they understand what you are trying to achieve. We have been very lucky with some of suppliers as they are very passionate about what they do and they’re more than willing to help educate children and promote healthy living in schools. By engaging your partners you can work towards the same goals and make it a little easier along the way.
We would also advise caterers to go out and search for local producers. We know there are plenty out there but often the smaller producer is unaware of how to supply a LEA, or don’t contact us because they feel they wouldn’t be able to compete with the bigger counterparts.
Finally, take it one step at a time, inevitably there will be problems along the way but through perseverance and using the support available you will get there.