Schools in Plymouth are joining forces with their council to ensure hot school lunches for students will continue. Together they are forming a school meals co-op, 49% owned by schools and 51% by the council.
A report to Plymouth City Council’s cabinet outlined plans to create a local authority trading co-operative company, the first of its kind in the country. Working on the principle of one school, one vote, it will bring together the pooled budgets of 64 primary schools, five special schools and one alternative complementary education service.
Staff will be transferred from the council’s education catering service to the co-op, meaning their conditions of service, hourly rates, hours and length of service will be unaffected. Decisions about the school meals service, which last year served over 1.5 million lunches, will be taken by a co-operative joint partnership board of elected representatives from the schools and the council.
The move follows the government’s decision last April to hand budgets for school meals, once held centrally by councils, to individual schools. Jim Wallace, headteacher at College Road Primary School in Plymouth, explains: “In theory, putting the budgets for school meals directly into the hands of schools sounded good, but in reality it was a real challenge for many smaller infant, primary and special schools. Commercially the figures just didn’t add up and there was a real risk that we wouldn’t be able to continue to offer hot lunches to our children.
“We’re very fortunate in Plymouth to have an outstanding education catering service so we’ve been happy to put out heads together to come up with a solution, and we think we’ve cracked it. Our new co-operative will guarantee all children and young people in Plymouth continue to get a decent hot meal at lunchtime.”
Cllr Sue McDonald, cabinet member for children, young people and public health, added: “We know that a good meal at lunchtime helps with concentration in the afternoon and, for some of our most vulnerable children, it may be the only hot meal they get to eat each day. It’s an essential service for young people in this city and a crucial part of our education system. I’m thrilled we’ll be working in partnership with schools on the board of our new joint co-operative.”
Peter Nash, CEO of Plymouth Association of Primary Headteachers Cooperative Community Interest Company, said: “This co-operative joint venture is a truly positive and momentous step forward for all parties and sets out the opportunities from September for the school meals service to be at the forefront of new ways of delivery. It’s heartening to see schools and the council supporting one another to deliver a first rate service for all pupils.
“Together we’ll meet the challenges of the introduction of the universal infant free school meals and we’ll develop a company that supports staff, increases employment opportunities and local sourcing arrangements for fresh, seasonal produce, and secures the future of school meals in Plymouth.”
Plymouth’s education catering service was the first local authority caterer in the country to achieve the Soil Association’s Food for Life gold catering mark for its locally sourced produce and seasonal menus. It is the current holder of the EDUcatering Excellence Award for Local Authority Caterer of the Year was runner up in the 2014 Cost Sector Awards for Service Team of the Year. Last month it was shortlisted for the MJ Excellence Award 2014.
Brad Pearce, manager of the service, said: “My team and I are extremely excited by the prospect of working as a commercial outfit and once our new board has been established, we’ll be very keen to work with its members to explore ways we can develop the company. We’re bursting with ideas to help grow and continue to improve our services, but likewise we’ll always remember that our core business is to ensure every child we serve has the option of a delicious and nutritious hot meal at lunchtime.”