Up to the mark?

Up to the mark?



Rich Watts, Catering Mark Senior Manager, looks at the progress the Catering Mark has made in recent years (and ask 'why?')

Children have a habit of asking ‘why?’ all the time and whilst it might be a frustration to parents, it’s actually a mind-set that gets a lot done. We’ve already helped over 50% of English primary schools to achieve the Catering Mark by asking ‘why?’ when others have just accepted the status quo of school food, and we’re planning to keep on asking ‘why?’ as we try and get the next 50% of schools on board too.

The Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark works extensively in schools, nurseries universities, public settings such as hospitals and care homes and now more businesses, venues and attractions too. It offers an independent accreditation, checked annually, that shows food served is more healthy, sustainable, British and is made freshly and is free from harmful additives and trans fats.

This is largely down to the fact we asked ‘why’ aren’t there any school food standards?

Back in 2005 schools were the breeding grounds of turkey twizzlers, driving costs down and churning out unhealthy food with little or no regard to where the food has come from. Spurred into action with the support of prominent figures like Jamie Oliver, caterers at last asked that crucial question: ‘why?’

Since then the Soil Association has been involved in forming the school food standards and working to make good food more available for everybody – whatever their background or income. And ‘why’ not? Why shouldn’t good food be available to all?

To maintain Catering Mark standards, inspectors spend time checking each Catering Mark holder to ensure their ingredients comply. I’m sure our inspectors will have also asked the question ‘why?’ more than a few times in a few store cupboards across the land.

Because of this diligence and questioning, the Food for Life Catering Mark now plays a key role in verifying schools for compliance to the School Food Standards, and is recognised by the Department for Education as a good indicator of a school’s commitment to improving the food served to its pupils. It is an independent endorsement that proves caterers are taking steps to improve their food, by meeting standards on nutrition, freshness, sustainability and animal welfare. It all started with that simple question: ‘why?’

Government interest

The most pleasing part of all of the changes in school food over the past few years is that we’re not the only ones asking that magic question. The government have also asked us ‘why?’ and the Catering Mark is cited in the government’s plan for Public Procurement, which addresses wider aspects of quality within food and catering – such as ethical, environmental and social considerations. Based on the government buying standards for food and nutrition, the Plan seeks to achieve consistent standards for all food procured by central government departments, as well as providing best practice recommendations for food providers and procurers. Catering Mark holders are recognised within the Plan as being well-placed to score good or excellent against the Plan’s ‘Balanced Scorecard’ criteria.

This year we’ve had some fantastic news: firstly the news that there are now over 50% of English primary schools serving Catering Mark standard meals, but also the news of the increased spend on products like British, Red Tractor, Free Range and MSC products – £40 million is now spent on Red Tractor and £9 million on organic products.

Why does this matter? It means that through recognised standards, caterers can improve the provenance and the sustainable, ethical credentials of their food. It’s a great way to recognise the steps that a caterer is taking to improve its food offering. Serving Catering Mark meals is good for us, good for animal welfare and good for the environment. It can also bring positive change to the local community and local businesses as well as to the schools or people who are eating these meals – for every £1 spent on ingredients £3 goes back into the local economy, for example through employment.

We’re often asked, ‘why should we spend more on good food?’ Well the good news is that you don’t have to as many caterers discover that a full review of inputs in line with the Catering Mark standards actually works out cost neutral. Historically, catering managers made their buying decisions based on keeping ingredient price low. Fortunately the past six years have also seen this mind-set change.

Careful sourcing

Caterers like ISS Education are showing that through careful sourcing and good staff training, they can make the most of seasonal produce, different cuts of meat, and make a nutritious meal that’s still within budget. It’s not just primary schools (over 50% is an amazing achievement!) but one third of all UK schools hold a Catering Mark, which is over 10,000 schools nationwide. These school caterers are clear evidence that improved food isn’t cost prohibitive, and what’s more there are many who hold a gold Catering Mark showing increased spending on free range, organic and farm assured ingredients.

One in five children in Reception is overweight or obese (boys at 23.2%, and girls at 21.2%) and one in three children in Year 6 is overweight or obese (boys at 34.8%, and girls at 31.8%). Overweight 5-year-olds are four times as likely to become obese later in life, compared with children who are a healthy weight at this age. Why are we allowing this to happen when we already know the answer?

Through schemes like the Catering Mark, and the Food for Life programme we can remind people why good food is important. However our challenge is to continue this good work in the years to come and to help those schools that don’t already hold a Catering Mark demonstrate their commitment to improving school food. 

To overcome this challenge and bring on the final 50% of English primary schools, our magic questions needs to be ‘why are you not improving your food?’

Asking ‘why are you not demonstrating your commitment to better school food through an independent accreditation like the Catering Mark?’ is one way we can understand the challenges. We want to help the remaining 50% of primary schools improve the quality of their food, whether it is due to remote conditions requiring food to be frozen and transported, lack of adequate kitchens, finances or something else entirely, we need to understand ‘why?’ so that we can work together to implement ‘what’ needs to be done and ‘how’.

If we can discover the answer to this question then we can start providing solutions to help these schools move forward with their food offering. ‘Why’ not the Catering Mark? Is a question that my inner child looks forward to discovering the answer to over the coming years.

Once we know the answers, it will only be a matter of time before we are all asking when will all UK schools be serving Catering Mark menus that are fresh, ethical, sustainable and achieve the school food standards. I look forward to that time.

First published in, April 2016


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