Industry leaders speak out at Public Sector Catering round table debateJuly 11, 2023 - 11:59
A meeting of some of the most influential people in public sector catering has identified some of the key issues facing the industry and agreed how best to tackle them in the year ahead. Report by Siobhan O’Neill.
Key Action Points
As a result of the round table, the Public Sector Catering Alliance will:
- Ask the Government for more detail on the single-supplier procurement plan, and the chance to be consulted and have input into it
- Invite younger people to play a part within the Public Sector Catering Alliance ‘to learn about their influence points’ and present a younger face of the industry
- Create a working party to look at ‘storytelling’ and other actions that help raise the profile of the industry and the benefits of a career within it
- Use the Public Sector Catering Awards to profile sustainability and the exciting and innovative work of the winners
It’s traditional for a 15th anniversary to gift crystal, and our assembled Top 20 Most Influential in public sector catering were certainly seeking clarity on the issues under discussion at the round table.
Travelling to the House of Commons from across the nations and regions for their annual round table debate, our 2022 cohort of Top 20 ‘Most Influential’ were prevented from meeting in December due to rail strike action. Gathering instead in February to discuss the current issues and challenges in public sector catering, the passion and resolution from those assembled was just as keen as when they first gathered 15 years ago.
Although the faces at the table and the challenges they face have changed over the years, their fierce determination to use their skills to raise the industry up to be brighter, bolder and more relevant than ever remains unshakeable.
One stop shop for public sector food
Unsurprisingly given the recent shock announcement of the Government’s intention to replace regional and local procurement agreements for public food and catering services with a centralised suppliers list managed by a single ‘prime supplier’, the Crown Commercial Services-led scheme was top of the agenda.
David Visick, director of communications at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) briefed the table on what his understanding was of the proposal to provide ‘a single point of access for public food’.
The aim of Government was, he said, ‘to reduce food and packaging waste, to reduce food miles, to invest in local communities, and improve equality and diversity’. His membership offered two theories on how this might roll out.
Potentially larger wholesalers might be contracted to run a centralised system, sub-contracting to smaller regional wholesalers. The FWD didn’t believe any single wholesaler could manage the entire system alone.
Alternatively, he said, a managing authority would oversee the system adding an additional layer of bureaucracy and margin for companies to negotiate, with the system mainly running in its current format. It would not apparently be mandatory for contractors or caterers to use this system.
The FWD were concerned this could threaten the viability of SME wholesalers. Visick quoted a member who told him: “My competitors for food into the public sector are not the national distributors, it’s the other local ones.”
Visick added: “That suggests that what we have is quite a good system, and if it was much better funded, it would be even better.”
With little concrete evidence of how the proposals would be progressed, Matthew White, chair of the Public Sector Caterers Alliance (PSCA) was keen to get some clarity from the Government.
“None of us have been consulted, so it’s very concerning that we’ve got to this moment without any of the end users being in the frame. The work that we have all put into driving more sustainable actions around getting British food onto public sector plates will be undermined by this.”
He described the efforts of all the PSCA associations to work with organisations like the National Farmers Union (NFU) to bring their purchasing closer to the farm gate, and how similar, centralised mechanisms, particularly in Scotland, had proved unsuccessful.
“You’re going to lose those relationships with local suppliers, with producers,” he said. “Why are we experimenting right now when everything is so critical? I believe this will totally undermine the work that we have been striving for and take us back years.”
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, recalled Rishi Sunak’s pre-election commitment that 50% of public sector food procurement to be locally sourced and British, but said they had recently been told that the Government might be ‘rolling back’ on that.
She also felt the PSCA should have a voice on the Food and Drink Sector Council. At a recent meeting of the council with co-chairs Tim Smith and Minister for Food Mark Spencer, an SME representative had said the CCS proposals would be anti-competitive and damaging.
Phil Shelley, senior operational and policy manager with NHS Estates and Facilities, agreed saying: “An integral part of our supplier base is the SMEs. That is what we must support.”
He said he was based in the southwest, adding: “We need to understand our regions. When you write a menu you will reflect your region and that’s why you should be working with your local SME because they understand your locality.”
Julian Edwards, chair of the FCSI UK & Ireland, suspected the move was a reaction to bad press around procurement during Covid, but felt the current critical situation for suppliers and caterers made this poor timing.
Chris Ross, chair of ASSIST FM in Scotland, said the Scottish Government was also in the dark about the plans: “We’ve done a lot of work through the Good Food Nations Act, and this seems to completely contradict everything that we are working towards in Scotland in terms of a regional approach to procurement.”
Minette Batters wondered whether the move was connected to Defra work on food data transparency around mandatory reporting through the supply chain on animal welfare standards, carbon and health metrics.
Matt White concluded this section of the debate saying, “We need to get in the room. We need to understand what this actually is. We should author a letter asking for more detail to understand exactly what is being proposed and for us to guide the decision making and to consult in a meaningful way.”
The discussion moved on to recruitment, retention and succession planning for services that are all-too-often led by older workers close to retirement. Everyone acknowledged the perennial challenge of attracting young people into the industry and the impact of pay increases alongside growing fuel and food costs. Several were keen to share the efforts they were making to tackle this.
Cathy Amos, head of customer marketing for the public sector, contract catering and care at Brakes, pointed to a lack of food and nutrition education in the school curriculum which was preventing young people from learning those skills or discovering a passion for cooking. She felt it was important to pique young people’s interest early on to attract them to the marketplace.
Molly Shaher, chair of the Professional Association for Catering Excellence (PACE), said catering courses had seen a boost in numbers following lockdown, where people had to learn to cook for themselves and enjoyed it.
“PACE is starting to work in primary schools to introduce children to the possibilities of catering as a career. I feel teachers need more information to help guide young people choosing GCSEs, especially around career progression.”
Nick Vadis, culinary director at Compass, described the company’s Junior Chefs Academy which had successfully targeted 14 to 16-year-olds, but had then struggled to support the young people into a career with Compass. Now the company had introduced an apprenticeship scheme to provide continuity on the route bringing young people in.
Molly Shaher wanted public sector caterers to do more with young people in colleges – offering work experience opportunities etc. – because they were ‘missing out to hotels and hospitality’ which were better at linking with colleges in their locality.
“We never get anybody from the care home, the NHS, we never get the public sector coming into colleges and saying let’s do some work experience, let’s do a training session,” she said. She wanted to see colleges linked to local schools, care homes and hospitals to provide those opportunities.
Iain Robertson, board director of the Hospital Caterers Association, described a scheme bringing local catering college students into local hospitals to experience a shift. “We let them work in the kitchen, we put them up on the ward and they see the entire meal service from beginning to end, to really promote what we do as caterers,” he said.
There was extensive discussion around the table about how to make the sector more appealing to young people and for those starting out as caterers.
Chris Ross said: “As a nation we’ve undervalued hospitality for a long time. We need to think about how we see the industry as a respectable career where you can progress, you can travel the world.
"We need to make it sexy. Show the diversity. You can be cooking school meals one day and catering a civic function the next. The sky is the limit in the public sector, but we downplay it.”
Jayne Jones, senior manager with Argyll and Bute Council and vice-chair of the PSCA, urged those present to improve their storytelling around staff who not only get a lot out of their job but are ‘people who care about the people they serve’.
James Hacon, chief marketing officer at Mapal Group, said a survey of chefs had revealed that the things they most valued in their working lives were camaraderie and creativity. He felt there were often more opportunities for those working in the public sector to be creative and this was a strong selling point.
Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, pointed to the favourable work/life balance in the public sector, often working 9-to-5 with weekends off.
Molly Shaher said that job security was better in the public sector than in restaurants and hospitality and Minette Batters added: “We must stop talking about our sector as being low-paid. We’re not. We’re all part of the national living wage and it talks the industry down to people when we need to be talking it up.”
Phil Shelley reminded the table: “The bit that’s missing is developing the people we’ve already got. It’s no good bringing more people in if some are leaving out the other door. We need to keep who we’ve got and look after them. It’s more than pay, it’s staff health and wellbeing. It’s how do we treat them? How do we care for them in the current climate?
“Leadership programmes. Is there something we can do as an Alliance to keep and develop them in a way that we’re proud of?”
Nick Vadis described how Compass gathered feedback from staff around career progression, asking them where they wanted their careers to take them. “Training and development has never been so important for retention,” he said. “It’s about creating career pathways with a seamless journey from the start of your career to the end of it.”
He felt staff needed to feel the business was investing in them and valuing their skills, which was why Chef of the Year competitions were a great way to spotlight their talents.
James Hacon agreed, saying the sector needed to get better at describing the opportunities for career progression, including between the different sectors. His company had developed a succession planning tool which helped staff to see where their skills could take them within the business or out in the broader realm of catering and hospitality.
Alexia Robinson, founder of Love British Food, wondered whether the Alliance should invite younger people into the group to learn about their points of influence and showcase the passionate leaders around the table.
She said, “The people who are going to be responsible for putting 50% local, sustainable food on menus are the next generation. I’m making a concerted effort to push younger people towards prominent roles. We need to give the industry a youthful face, so the young want to join us.”
Matt White felt that immigration was part of the discussion, because the recruitment pool in the UK was too small. And James Hacon urged the industry not to ignore the role of technology in addressing some labour issues.
Sue Cawthray, chair of the National Association of Care Catering (NACC), described the challenges she faced in recruiting staff as well as the pressures that a wage increase of 9%, coupled with food prices going up 19%, were having on her service because local authorities were only increasing funding per resident by 4%. Julian Edwards agreed, saying, “With residents in a care home there isn’t the capacity to double sales or generate more income.”
This moved the discussion on to the challenges provided by rising costs. Brad Pearce, chair of LACA, the organisation for school meal providers, described how catering teams were just about coping with support from the Government for fuel costs. But with wage rises and food inflation set against static funding, they were having to look closely at ingredients and suppliers to reduce costs while maintaining an attractive meal on the plate.
He said he was concerned that when Government support ended in April, and with subsidies rising by just 5p per meal, some caterers would start to fail on their contracts. He speculated that schools which provided their own service would have to allocate more money for meals which would directly impact their spending on education.
“The people in those kitchens believe fundamentally that we should be doing the very best we can, which is a hot, freshly-cooked, two-course meal,” he said. “The average selling price will be £2.65. That’s gone up 18% since the pandemic, but if we are to recover our costs it needs to be much closer to £3.
“I get £2.47 for food and labour for a school food standard compliant meal every day. We can’t keep doing it,” he said.
David Oliver, head of catering at His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, said that with a budget of just £2.12 per prisoner per day he was concerned about having to take things off the plate, or the impact on portion sizes, as these can become flashpoints for prisoners who have pre-ordered meals and expect them to be delivered.
The table discussed where savings could be made, and Nick Vadis pointed to food waste reduction and said that in Compass’s Ingredient Owners Forum, chefs re-engineered recipes when ingredients became too expensive.
Matt White pointed to savings that could be made from more modern, efficient equipment and offered the PSC Alliance as a laboratory for manufacturers to test innovations. As an example, he said that the installation of simple inhibitors on the air handling system had saved the University of Reading ‘thousands and thousands of pounds’.
James Hacon said caterers needed training to prevent bad habits in the kitchen such as turning all the equipment on when it wasn’t needed. Chefs should be turning fryers down between uses and using lids on saucepans.
Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, joint founder of the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, wondered whether chefs could be incentivised to reduce energy use via salary bonuses.
Discussion of reducing waste and energy brought the debate to the final subject of sustainability and Net Zero commitments. Several at the table admitted that the focus on green issues had slipped in the face of current pressures, though Cathy Amos said it remained important at Brakes.
“Having worked to understand our carbon footprint, we know only 10% comes from infrastructure and distribution, the remaining 90% is the food itself. I am introducing a tool which will compare emissions and help to build lower carbon recipes. We are aligning with Menus of Change to start a journey towards carbon neutrality.”
Jayne Jones said that in Scotland they were developing a more sustainable and ethical food system but added: “How do we also tackle food insecurity and make sure no one in our communities is left behind? Public sector food is at the forefront of that. How do we continue to do that in a safe and manageable way?”
She said she wanted more support and guidance to move food systems in the right direction.
Sharon Hodgson noted that a shift to more plant-based eating was essential to make meals more sustainable and affordable. She said she would like to see a Food Security Minister role created in the Cabinet feeding into Health, Education and Agriculture.
Matt White concluded the debate taking action points to carry the shared passion and commitment forwards. He felt momentum around sustainability was building again, and that brought cost-savings. He said he would like to use the Public Sector Catering Awards to promote positive actions throughout the industry.
“We have a wonderful evening, but what might be more advantageous is for us to celebrate those winners in a longer lasting way and to champion the innovation that comes from them. Let’s promote that great work and the great ideas, tell those stories and really learn from that innovation,” he said.