Tensions were high in Westminster as the Sue Gray report was released, but at the same venue at the same time public sector catering industry leaders were pledging to reduce fragmentation and to work together to tackle shared challenges.
It was a momentous day in May when the Top 20 Public Sector leaders judged to be the industry’s most influential were finally able to convene their traditional round-table, having been prevented last December thanks to rising Covid rates.
Not only was it the first time in two years that these leading names had been able to meet for the usually annual debate and lunch, but Westminster’s halls were buzzing with ministers’ responses to the Sue Gray report.
The day’s current affairs did not distract, however, from the serious issues at hand, and the assembled thought-leaders were keen to share their concerns as well as their solutions.
Several themes had resonance with everyone in the room, which included representatives from organisations and associations that spanned the entire supply chain from field to fork. All were feeling the pressures of rising food and fuel prices, the impacts of Brexit and the war in Ukraine, the scarcity of talent to recruit from, and the pressing need to gather pace on the journey to net zero carbon.
Kicking off the debate, Simon Billing, chief executive of the Eating Better alliance commented that: “Everything’s changing at the moment. This is the most volatile and uncertain period I’ve ever worked in, around food.”
Sean Haley, chair of Sodexo UK & Ireland agreed, saying: “The industry is massively disrupted like never before. I believe we’re facing structural change that will never go back to the pre-Covid ways of working. We have a huge responsibility to understand how we navigate through that and continue to deliver those services that are required.”
Jayne Jones, chair of the ASSIST FM in Scotland, was keen to remind people that Covid had not gone away. “We’re still very much in pandemic recovery,” she said. “We are dealing with the impact of that and it’s one of the many factors that’s led to the cost-of-living emergency that we’re seeing now.”
Price increases led several around the table to call for greater funding for the sector. Jacquie Blake, chair of LACA, said that funding was needed to provide universal free school meals, noting that England was the ‘poor relation’ compared to Scotland and Wales which were funding this provision in their nations. She pointed to the fact that funding per meal had only increased by four pence in the last decade. “We are really facing a crisis as we move forward with the cost of inflation,” she said.
Blake was among several at the table who were concerned that price pressures would soon start to impact quality of provision and lead to a drop in standards. Gavin Squires, who heads up the education and healthcare sectors at Bidfood and was standing in for Top 20 member Andy Kemp, said that if prices continued to rise it represented a threat to the quality of food provided, and risked undoing all the great work of the past 15 years.
Dr Susan Jebb, chair of the Food Standards Agency, expressed concerns that challenges faced by the sector - cost pressures, supply chain issues, labour shortages – represented a potential threat to the safety and the authenticity of food.
She was worried that the cost-of-living crisis meant that people in poverty would increasingly take risks with the food they bought, leaving them vulnerable to fraud and crime, as well as illness.
Many people were concerned that food insecurity and poverty would continue to impact the public, including their own colleagues. Lindsay Graham, poverty & inequality commissioner in Scotland, said that her peers feared that a ‘tsunami of poverty is heading our way’ and people were moving beyond poverty to destitution.
Some of her colleagues suspected that hundreds if not thousands of families would face eviction from their homes. And she said: “It will be the public sector that will be picking up the pieces to feed and look after those families and individuals.”
The table agreed that the public sector had a vital role to play in ensuring society was well fed no matter the situation, but this underlined the need for increased funding. Jacquie Blake and Jayne Jones both made this point, with Phil Shelley from NHS England adding: “We need to fight to ensure we get the food budgets we deserve.”
There were many stories the table could share about how their organisations had stepped up and rapidly adapted during Covid. Graham said the sector: “Literally saved lives in the last two years. Whether that was at the school gates, in care homes, at the hospitals, whether it was the food parcels that went out, it saved millions of lives.”
However, there was wide acknowledgement that the public had a poor understanding of the part public sector catering plays in society, and there was a call to improve messaging to raise awareness of its critical role.
Sue Cawthray, chair of the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) said: “The public needs to understand what we do, and the image is absolutely key. [They need to know how] through the pandemic, we’ve had to be innovative and creative about how we deliver services.”
Jacquie Blake pointed to the positive representatives each organisation had: School Chef of the Year, NACC Care Caterer and so on who could talk about the positive impacts they’d made.
Billing said: “You’re full of very interesting people telling very strong stories about helping people get better, educating people. Tell the stories of all those hearts and souls that have been going out [making a difference].”
Improving the branding and image of the public sector was also widely seen to be essential to tackling the recruitment challenges everyone was facing.
Andy Jones, outgoing chair of the PSC100 Group, said: “Recruitment and retention has got to be a priority.”
But Cawthray cautioned: “The pandemic has had a huge impact on encouraging people into our workforce.” Brian Robb, chair of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) agreed that people had been scared off from working in hospitality because the industry was so impacted by lockdowns.
Molly Shaher, chair of the Professional Association for Catering Education (PACE) added that parents had seen those in hospitality losing their jobs during the pandemic and didn’t want their children to enter the industry.
Whilst several people agreed that it was hard for the public sector to compete for talent with hotels and chains which could offer higher rates of pay, Shaher and others pointed to the many benefits that come with a career in the sector.
She said: “Students don’t want to work 13 hours a day. They don’t want to work every weekend. The public sector offers that seven-hour shift, weekends off, no late nights, you offer that work life balance, but students don’t know about it.”
Robb pointed to the job security and better working conditions the sector offered.
Sean Haley said that the younger generations want to work for organisations that make a difference. “They want to know that we are going to improve the communities we work with. They want to know that we are going to reduce food waste and that our net zero strategy is going to deliver,” he said.
Sue Cawthray added: “We can really encourage people to understand the importance of what we do and the difference that we make to the lives of everybody that we deliver services to.”
Cathy Amos, responsible for customer marketing at Brakes, said that people would want to be part of that story of making a difference and Eleanor Morris, special adviser on hospitality and foodservice at WRAP, said: “This sector and food provides the answer in many forms, that this is the opportunity for [young people anxious about climate change] to help on the ground.”
There was wider discussion around looking to other cohorts to recruit from. With an ageing population, people could be supported to retrain, as could rehabilitated ex-prisoners.
Jayne Jones detailed discussions she’d had recently around creating opportunities in the sector for people with learning disabilities, and pointed to the work of the Edinburgh-based Scran Academy working with disaffected youth. Sarah Robb, marketing manager for Premier Foods, urged the industry to do more to retain women who struggled with menopause symptoms.
For retention purposes the room agreed that it was important to show employees a career path and the various opportunities for mobility within the sector. They acknowledged the need for processes that supported employees’ mental health.
Jacquie Blake described one initiative at a school in Nottingham that worked with parents who relied on food banks but had poor cooking skills. They ran a parent and child cooking club which resulted in parents attaining the basic food hygiene certificate, making them potential employees.
Molly Shaher explained the many challenges that catering colleges were facing, and urged those round the table to make it easier for students to get work experience in the public sector. She described how the private sector was working to attract employees and urged university and care home caterers to build relationships with their local college to create a supply chain of talent.
The debate moved on to consider climate change and whether focus had shifted given current pressures. But Jayne Jones countered: “Anyone who thinks that we can push sustainability further down the line is hugely mistaken.”
Eleanor Morris urged the group to work with WRAP on their various food waste campaigns, saying: “We have got a number of ambitions. It would be great to work together and have alignment on those.” Andy Jones pointed out: “We assisted people eating better [during Covid] because we actually used our waste food to provide meals to the community.”
And Jayne Jones added: “We’re spending public money so we have a responsibility to make sure that every penny is working as hard for us as we can. Reducing our food waste is a clear and easy way of better managing our costs.”
Paul O’Brien chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) said: “This sector’s got a chance to get investment which will come if we make a positive case for how it can decarbonise.”
He called for an aspirational net zero target for 2035 saying: “I think the sector should set that out collectively and work out what the supply chain, what suppliers, what the various institutions within the sector can all do to get to that goal. It can be part of this solution, or it can continue to be part of the problem on net zero.”
Sean Haley said the UK had taken a leadership position and that sustainability was embedded in government procurement protocols and anyone working in the public sector was obliged to have a net zero strategy that was trackable and auditable.
Bethan Cowell, food service and procurement adviser at the National Farmers Union, said that part of the solution to tackling supply chain challenges was, ‘through productivity, efficiency, sustainability, resilience, and all those naturally look into inputs and the impact of your business on the wider environment’.
As many around the table were saying there was ‘no choice’ but to take action, she added: “It means so much to our consumers. I think that farming would be remiss not to face into that and be part of the solution.”
Representatives were keen to see organisations ‘break down silos’ and work collectively across the whole supply chain to prevent fragmentation. Sean Haley said that different ways of working would be required to navigate through the various challenges.
“It’s going to need significant collaboration and work from our distributors down to our manufacturers,” he said.
People were anxious to see the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering (GBSF) and the National Food Strategy coming from parliament. Helena Diffey, from DEFRA, said that the standards were imminent, and she was hoping to see consensus around sustainability.
She urged everyone to engage with the upcoming consultation and take the opportunity to feedback to government on what ideas would work and what the sector could support.
Several people called for the sector to start thinking more holistically around the entire food system and supply chain. Pete Ritchie, executive director at Nourish Scotland, said: “We’ve got to join up through policy across health, environment, climate change, food waste, production, we’ve got to take the food system as a whole and have a national plan for that.”
Jayne Jones agreed, saying: “We should be thinking more holistically about how we deliver our services, and making sure that when we’re tackling the issues that face us today, we’re not putting in place systems that will adversely impact our ability to [address sustainability].
“These issues are all interconnected and it’s an opportunity for us to be more strategic and systems based in how we respond, how we work more collaboratively with our supply chain and support each other as we go forward. It’s about primary producers, but there are other parts of the system that we need to be mindful of including suppliers, distributors, wholesalers etc.”
Bethan Cowell said that the NFU wanted an industry that was supportive of its values, saying: “We need friends in the supply chain, and we need to work together and talk openly about the opportunities and challenges.” She said farmers wanted to work with the public sector, but that bureaucracy and tendering processes could throw up barriers.
She recognised the cost pressures faced by the sector, adding: “It needs a broader conversation about how we can purpose the food on your menus, whether that’s seasonality, different cuts or a different balance of food, but it’s about talking about and celebrating that food.”
Brian Robb described how Nourish Scotland had been able to approach a small local producer which was originally sceptical of its ability to provide the required volumes but that by working with them initially as a regional producer they had supported their growth and diversification to become a national supplier.
The sector’s influence as a procurer from small local producers was seen as central to its role in communities, and the table discussed the broader purpose it could have in supporting national targets for sustainability, food waste and so on.
Billing said: “I think the public sector is absolutely critical for normalising healthy, sustainable diets. Be the leader in this and saying to government, ‘we want to support the very best regenerative farming, agro-ecological systems’.
“This is the future. You’ve got a big responsibility, the people sat around the table, because you’re being asked to translate some of these big commitments on climate change, health and nature into what you put in front of me on my plate. And it’s complex, and it’s nuanced.”
Phil Shelley said: “The GBSF will start to open up those ideas and opportunities. But we have to influence the way that we purchase and the way that we link with our regions. Our menus, particularly in healthcare and in schools and our care homes need to reflect where we live.”
Pete Ritchie said: “We shouldn’t underestimate the key role of public food in saying ‘this is the sort of society we want to be’. Our supply chain has got major commitments to creating a sustainable food system. What the public sector food can do is normalise that, showcase it, say, ‘this is what we mean by sustainable. This is what we mean by organic. This is what we do about plant-based’. And actually it tastes nice and kids can enjoy it, grow up with it and think, ‘that’s how we eat in our country’.”
Sean Haley added: “Business has got a huge role to play in solving those problems. Our ability to improve the communities we work within, whether that’s apprenticeships, whether that’s working with small, medium enterprises, whether that’s volunteering. Focus on improving the communities where we work.”
Sarah Robb challenged the group, asking: “How do we continue working together as one team instead of these separate organisations and make sure that we can provide the best food and the best service going forward?”
And Phil Shelley said: “There’s a lot of fragmentation and what the public sector brings is unity through diversity. We keep fighting for it. And we ensure that food is at the top of the agenda.”
Susan Jebb agreed, saying: “If we cannot get it right in public food, it is a shame on the whole of our nation. And when we do get it right, it can deliver tremendous benefits, whether that’s communities being in a better place, cohesion, connection, the local economy, or whether it’s about role-modelling, healthy and more sustainable diets.”
Lindsay Graham added: “This is a sector that can offer hope. It’s a sector that keeps people connected and it’s a sector that needs a bigger voice out there about what we can do.”
Andy Jones concluded the discussion saying: “We are a sexy industry where we’ve got to bring people in, but we’ve also got to ensure we get the message out to the people, about the value of public sector food.”
The Top 20 round-table debate identified five key areas for the PSC100 Group to focus on in the year ahead:
- Working on a collective message on buying standards for the consultation to be launched this summer
- A pledge by the public sector to reach Carbon Net Zero by 2035 or sooner
- Work with WRAP on food waste reduction ambitions
- Use social media to tell the stories of those already working in public sector catering to help inform and recruit more young people
- Send a collective letter to Prime Minister outlining the work we do and asking for more investment
Outgoing PSC100 chair Andy Jones said: “Now is the time to hit Number 10. We’ve got a great story to tell and we’ve got to get the message out on the value of the industry.