Developing dinner sales

Jamie Oliver burst onto television screens with his usual energy last year with a hard-hitting series that drew attention to what he, and many others, saw as the shortcomings of school dinners. As a result of the series, the Government found some more money for this sector – and the number of meals served in schools fell dramatically. What’s going on?

The television programmes highlighted the cost-saving measures that run through the school meals system which result in food which is cheap to buy, requires little preparation, and which is cooked by people with minimal training. Oliver also pointed out that in some local authorities, the food cost per meal may be as low as 37p although, according to Horizons’ research which covers the whole country, the figure was closer to 48p in 2005 across primary and secondary schools.

The Government found an extra pound;220m in addition to pound;60m recently awarded for school meals over a three-year period. Although this funding is intended to include training, equipment and wages, the general perception is that it will be used to buy better quality food. That remains to be seen. But if it is, Horizons calculates that it will amount to an extra 10.3p over the 904.7m meals served in schools each year.

While the Government was reconsidering its funding, the results of the bad publicity were immediate. Schools cut down on foods highlighted as unhealthy and started serving healthier alternatives. Just as quickly, the children rebelled and many stopped eating at school. In addition, some parents, learning that unhealthy food was on the school menu, decided to provide packed lunches for their children. The result was a decline of 12% in the numbers of meals served in schools over a six-week period.

However, much of the decline in sales of school dinners was reversed as parents realised many of their fears were unfounded and children got to like their “new” food. The upturn is likely to be helped by the additional funds which are only now finding their way into the food that is actually served, and although 10p per meal is not a lot – being equated to “two cherry tomatoes” by one commentator – it represents a 21% increase in the cost of a meal in schools.

Another factor affecting take-up of school meals in the past 12 months was the launch in many schools of minimum nutrition standards for school foods. This reflects some sort of return to the concept of nutritional standards that was done away with 25 years ago. Although a separate development from the Jamie Oliver inspired changes, the emergence of fruit and vegetables and disappearance of fried convenience food has proved another deterrent to school meal take-up.

The result of all these factors is likely to be a fall in school meals totalling just under 2% between 2005 and 2007, but as the new funding kicks in this will translate into an overall real increase of 6.8% in food expenditure over the period. By 2007, state schools will be spending pound;465m on food.

The big gainers out of this increase will be delivered wholesalers, whose total increase can be expected to be pound;21.9m spread over two years but, in percentage terms, contract distributors will see their sales increase by 9.1% and their market share advance to 10.1%.

Food at all temperatures can expect to grow, even frozen foods which were attacked by Jamie Oliver. However, the big increase will come from fresh or short shelf-life chilled foods. Their current pound;110.9m sales are forecast by Horizons to advance to pound;120.8m by 2007, an increase of 9% in real terms.

This will provide additional opportunities for specialist suppliers of fresh foods including produce, fish and meat. Although an estimated pound;7.6m of fresh food will be supplied by general delivered wholesalers, specialist distributors will see their sales grow by a forecast pound;2.3m.

Although Jamie Oliver’s programmes caused some grief along the way, it looks like there will be many who gain in the longer term.

Delivered wholesalers and produce suppliers can expect to see increased sales, while schoolchildren should find that the quality of their food improves.

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