14 April 2005 | David Arminas
School meal buyers have welcomed Tony Blair's £280 million pledge to improve lunch-time nutrition.
But they cautioned that the government must come up with concrete guidelines to help them understand how they can turn the cash into better meals.
Colin Ranson, assistant head of community services at Sunderland City Council, said many schools are still in the dark about what the government means when it calls for "minimum nutrition standards".
"Many buyers have been aware of the issues for some years and the government has now promised advice on these standards this September," he said.
He added that school authorities will need to improve their buying methods to ensure suppliers give better deals.
"The current attitude of buying cheap meals is a hold-over from the days of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT)," he said. "CCT moved the provision of meals from a service philosophy onto one of profit when it had to go out to tender and the cheapest price was the best.
"The government money is a step in the right direction."
Ranson said Sunderland and its 25 suppliers serve up 25,000 meals a day, costing about 54p each, across 110 schools.
John Crowther, director of CaterMap, a catering consultancy and adviser for the education market, said suppliers also welcome the move:
"I've spoken to buyers and suppliers, and many of them say more money is a good thing.
"But some also said it appears ironic that an election is near."
Crowther noted that buyers of school meals have traditionally been "starved of funding" and this has driven down the standards of meals despite the best efforts of suppliers and buyers.
The issue of school meal quality hit the media headlines during a recent Channel Four television series featuring celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Jamie's School Dinners reviewed the difficulty in providing meals in the London Borough of Greenwich and found that the average ingredient cost of a meal was 37p.
At the end of last month, Oliver handed in a petition with more than 271,000 signatures to Downing Street demanding more funding for schools to provide meals.
Education secretary Ruth Kelly then announced that schools should spend at least 50 pence on food per primary school child and 60 pence per secondary school student.
She also guaranteed more training for school cooks, including a new vocational qualification for school caterers to help them promote healthy food.
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