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Catering giant’s menu leaves a sour taste in some schools

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The catering giant Chartwells has lost school food contracts worth up to £19 million since its lockdown parcels sparked outcry earlier this year, with one trust accusing it of putting “profit before pupils”.

But the company has still bagged seven deals in recent months worth at least £92 million over the next six years, assuming schools use extension options built into new contracts.

They include a £20 million deal agreed by Lewisham council in south London last week, after it canned its plans to bring services in-house.

Chartwells’ owner Compass and other caterers faced public fury when viral images appeared of meagre food parcels for children on free school meals during lockdown in January.

The company, part of footballer Marcus Rashford’s child poverty taskforce, pledged higher standards.

School ends deal early over ‘quality issues’

But it faces scrutiny once more as Royal Docks Academy in east London has confirmed it will end a three-year deal early over “quality issues”.

Burnt Mill Academy Trust will move services in-house, highlighting not only “appalling” parcels, but also meals like a reported £2.20 half-burger served without garnish last month.

“These outsourced firms’ thing is profit before pupils. Ours is pupils before profit,” said Lucia Glynn, BMAT’s head of operations.

A Chartwells spokesperson apologised and said it worked to resolve concerns, but was “obviously disappointed” to lose contracts. “The image falls short of standards we would expect.”

But she noted secondary pupils could choose salad, relish and wedges “within the price” of burgers.

Merton council in south west London also ditched Chartwells last week, handing another provider a £18.6 million five-year deal. It did not respond to request for comment.

Catering giant has signed new deals

Yet Schools Week analysis shows Chartwells has won or extended seven other deals covering more than 280 schools this year.

They include a £56.6 million five-year extension with West Sussex County Council, after positive feedback from schools.

“We are really pleased to have won and retained a number of contracts this year,” said the Chartwells spokesperson, praising the company’s staff for their hard work during the pandemic.

Lewisham’s Labour council appears stuck with Chartwells, however, despite a critical petition.

Chris Barnham, a children’s services cabinet member, admitted “not enough schools” backed its preferred in-sourcing plan. Chartwells alone applied for the contract, but Lewisham would “explore the scope for more ambitious models” in future, he said.

Officials in West Sussex had also warned schools of “turbulence” in the catering sector, arguing retaining suppliers would help weather Covid and Brexit.

Financial results for multinational Compass show cost-cutting helped to raise its profit margin from 2.7 per cent to 4.2 per cent between January and March, despite education sales slumping 21.6 per cent in the half-year to April, versus a year earlier.

‘Logistical implications’ could deter switches

Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said there was no “definitive answer” on in-house versus contracted services.

Covid disruption might have led many schools to review arrangements, but equally “logistical implications” around staffing and administration could deter switches.

Jacquie Blake, the vice-chair of the school meals industry group LACA, said some schools had found in-sourcing a “bigger task than they thought”, particularly during Covid.

Councils have had to run competitive tenders since the 1980s.  While many authorities remain major providers, Blake said devolved budgets and academisation had further fuelled fragmentation, increasing private provision.

Historian Alan Finch said before the 1980s, many children disliked council meals.

But as subsidies and national food standards were slashed, contractors prioritised cost and mimicked high street fast food to boost sales.

National food standards returned in 2015, after campaigning by chef Jamie Oliver and as concerns over childhood obesity grew.

Quality was now a primary driver for some schools, Blake said, as no one wanted a “race to the bottom”.

Providers also face other expectations. Merton and Lewisham councils demanded climate change commitments. West Sussex and Chartwells worked to cut sugar levels and food miles. The company said it planned a more plant-based, sustainable menu from September.



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