By Laura Hadley, Strategic Director responsible for School Food, at SIPS Education

You only have to look at the shelves in your local supermarket to see that supply chain issues continue to have an impact on the food sector. 

Sadly, this is affecting every facet of the industry – not least school food and catering, the sphere in which we operate. SIPS produces and serves a fresh, healthy meal to around 15,000 students a day across the West Midlands – that’s 2.6 million hot meals every year.

It’s a real wake-up call for us all, with a host of implications on costs, choice and, most importantly for us, children’s health and well-being.

Availability and consistency of the right type of food is essential to ensure compliance to the Department of Education’s School Food Plan which we follow – these 17 actions aim to transform what children eat in schools and is a key part in addressing the ongoing fight against childhood obesity.

The current thinking is that it is likely that the industry will continue to be affected by these supply chain issues for a long time to come, and so as you would expect, we have been working hard on our continuity plans to mitigate the impact to schools. Our measures include: 

  • Identifying with our suppliers, a range of pre-agreed suitable alternatives in case of shortages in particular product lines. This will help our suppliers to keep the ordering and distribution process as smooth and speedy as possible
  • Where appropriate and in line with our HACCP procedures, gradually increasing our own ‘stores’ of key ingredients and products to help to address unexpected supply and delivery issues in the short term
  • Agreeing / identifying a variety of additional suppliers for certain product lines, where this has been possible

In the last 12 months, we have also supported a proportion of our schools to implement a pre-order system for their meals, which we are anticipating will be taken on by more schools by Easter. This will support our commitment to greater sustainability in the future in terms of anticipated waste reduction. 

We have also been busy reviewing a range of recipes that can be prepared on site with ingredients that we currently have fewer issues getting hold of. Again, these are likely to change over time as we respond to availability of the ingredients, but this does mean we have a range of back-up options to be able to quickly put in place. This move, to more cooking from scratch and much less ‘bought-in’ product, will help us in relation to ongoing supply chain issues.

In response to schools’ feedback, we’ve also added a jacket potato option to every menu as standard. Many schools who’ve already trialled this have found it’s both a popular option amongst pupils and one that’s relatively easy to prepare, with fewer availability issues.

The challenges we are facing are global, but the solutions are local. Our unit supervisors are very much involved in coming up with innovative answers; supporting a bespoke solution for each school through the refinement of the sales mix, further underpinned by long-established relationships with our local suppliers who understand our customers needs, and often provide similar solutions to ourselves.  

As any caterer will know, the competition for availability of foodstuffs is driving up cost of provision, which creates affordability issues both for providers and schools/customers. The inflationary impact of NI increases, national living wage increases and energy cost rises will also impact affordability and take-up, exacerbated by Covid-recovery.

Reduced choices on the school menu can also have impacts on pupils’ nutritional requirements, which segues into the childhood obesity debate. A poor diet can have significant effects on children’s behaviour, concentration and mood. Children with diets lacking in essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids tend to perform worse academically, cannot concentrate and are more aggressive.

As school meal providers, it’s our duty to put children at the heart of the debate, rather than the profit and loss being the first focus, otherwise it’s a race to the bottom – cheaper prices to win business, lower quality offerings which can mean more processed foods and less healthy options.