Mike Haslin, Chief Executive Officer at TUCO, The University Caterers Organisation, discusses how to achieve value for money in these unpredictable times
A vibrant catering service for Oxfordshire schools
Following the collapse of Carillion, Oxfordshire County Council brought the catering service for its 54 primary schools in-house and gave it a major rebrand to instil confidence in the service. The Council's Gail Witchell, who lead the project, shares the experience
Since the collapse of Carillion back in January, life for the catering service arm of Oxfordshire County Council has been nothing if not busy! With just a two-week window in which to transfer some 150 staff back into the fold and to hit the ground running to ensure the children of Oxfordshire continued to receive healthy and nutritious meals in some 60 schools, this was no mean feat.
The transition was almost seamless, thanks largely, to the amazing positive response we had from staff, schools and suppliers in working with us in what were, undoubtedly challenging times. All staff have now been transferred on to Oxfordshire County Council terms and conditions, which for most resulted in enhanced pay and benefits. We also increased the number of support workers in each area to ensure that sites are fully supported through sickness and absence. Again, this is important as we understand that the staff are an incredibly valuable asset and we are keen to retain their expertise and loyalty to enable us to continue to build a sustainable service provision.
Once the move back in house was completed, it was important that we instil a sense of confidence, belonging and recognition of the commitment from the council that our aim was to improve on the service offer and increase meal numbers and that we were genuinely excited to have the service back ‘in-house’. This was a key message we needed to communicate to all our stakeholders, pupils, staff, schools and parents, as we did not want to just lift and shift the operation.
The catering service invested in a programme of revamping servery areas within our schools to make a clean, new and vibrant identity to the dining areas. All schools signed up to the service were offered the opportunity to be included and we worked closely with Elygra Marketing on producing a suitable design. The team at Elygra did a fantastic job in pulling the design together and rolling out the programme in a short space of time, despite some schools requiring bespoke, made to measure options. The result is perfect and we feel we are well on the way to achieving our aim.
Our next area of focus was on our menu offering. With no dedicated menu development resource, we used our dedicated and experienced management teams’ combined knowledge of school meals to create a new, exciting menu to display in our new menu boards. And, of course to serve our customers. We took the decision to extend our menu by offering a third choice, beyond the traditional meat and vegetarian options, whilst still ensuring that our menu was compliant with the School Food Plan nutritional guidelines. This was well received and we will shortly be launching our next new menu cycle which includes some dedicated Vegan options – a first for us, but we believe that increased choice and inclusion for minorities are crucial factors for consideration when designing menus.
As every school caterer knows, it’s about finding the right balance between menu items that not only encourage our pupils to choose school meals, but to also to introduce new tastes and flavours for children to experience. Our intention is to have our new Autumn / Winter menu independently assessed by LACA (the Lead Association for Caterers in Education) which will authenticate our compliance with national best practice nutritional guidelines.
The catering service, under Carillion had been awarded the Bronze Level Food for Life Award, unfortunately this did not transfer with the service, so we are keen to pursue this in our own right. The award is based around demonstrating that we are providing good healthy, nutritionally balanced, sustainable food in our schools and we will be registering and working towards this during the autumn term.
Other initiatives in the pipeline, include a trial for an add on to our electronic kitchen management system, as we are keen to adopt a process to allow pupils and parents to choose meal options in advance and to make payments on line. We already have schools volunteered to participate in the trial and if successful, we are hoping to roll this out for the new year.
All in all, we are pleased to have stabilised the service and whilst we understand that the future will bring many further challenges, we continue to strive to provide the best possible school meal service to the children of Oxfordshire.