The Top 20 ‘most influential’ names in public sector catering selected by a panel of judges gathered in December at the House of Commons for a celebratory lunch. As ever we took the opportunity to pick their brains about the problems they face as a group, and the innovative solutions they’ve developed to continue delivering nutritious, sustainable meals.
Welcoming the group, Matthew White, chair of the PSC Alliance and director of student experience and education at the University of Reading, congratulated everyone on being recognised as ‘most influential’ and outlined the progress the Alliance had made in tackling the action points from 2022’s Top 20 debate.
This included efforts to highlight the exceptional talent within public sector catering, building greater sustainability into menus and working practices, and improving ‘storytelling’ to broaden the appeal of the sector to younger generations.
Matthew White, chair of the Public Sector Catering Alliance, outlined the key action points for 2024:
- Lead on change rather than wait for regulation
- Be the voice of experience on Owen’s Law
- Share social media videos and resources from the Alliance around the difference the sector makes
- Join the NFU webinar on meeting net zero targets
- Continue efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of kitchens and menus
- Lobby parliament to protect budgets for public sector catering
Allergens and ultra-processed foods
Opening the debate to the first topic for discussion, Public Sector Catering magazine editor David Foad invited Amy Fry, chief adviser at the National Farmers Union to describe how members were working to tackle issues around antibiotic resistance, allergens, food safety, animal welfare, and ultra-processed foods.
Fry confirmed these were a priority for members, saying: “We’re world-leading with animal welfare, environmental and sustainability credentials. But when we look at animal welfare in particular, it’s at the heart of all our members’ businesses. They pride themselves in that.”
She pointed to a 59% reduction in antibiotic use in farming since 2014 and said the challenge for foodservice buyers was to know whether imported products met the same high standards. She wanted greater transparency on imported food.
Anita Brown, chair of LACA, said that with the cost of meat increasing by 57% over the year, a survey of school caterers revealed that most were not looking to import cheaper meats but simply to replace it with other proteins. “We’re not putting the roast meats on that we would like to do, we’re just looking at more plant-based and doing things differently,” she said.
Brian Robb, chair of the HCA, described how fluctuations in product availability led to challenges for chefs in the health service when substituted items might introduce allergens they were trying to avoid. Despite using an electronic management system to protect patients, product swaps introduced additional administrative tasks.
Neel Radia, chair of the NACC, added, “In the care sector we’re catering for the most vulnerable people, so guaranteeing their allergens and their food safety is really important. What we’re really good at in the public sector is having that good relationship with our suppliers and that continual communication is vital.”
Alexia Robinson, founder of Love British Food, agreed that the public sector was particularly receptive to messages around improving local purchasing and building robust supply chains. She was concerned that catering teams trying to drive change were sometimes let down by those higher up - for example school governors - who didn’t support their efforts.
She felt strongly that public sector caterers held the power to make change on the ground, and it was incumbent on the group to push for that rather than relying on government.
Wan Mak, head of nutrition and dietetics at Sodexo, explained how there was so much regulation and guidance coming in for caterers to adopt, it was hard to know what to prioritise. She said they were still waiting for government direction on ultra processed foods, but pointed out that a ready-made sauce would be classified as ultra processed yet it was useful for many caterers due to time and cost savings compared with cooking from scratch.
Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, co-founder of the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, described how the charity was regularly contacted by parents whose children had died as a result of eating foods they were allergic to, often due to human error which he admitted was hard to mitigate. He said 8m people in the UK were avoiding certain allergens and felt it was a growing issue with 40% of allergens now falling outside the official list of 14 that caterers and food companies worked to.
He said: “The issue with substitutions is that a different product might have the qualifier ‘may contain’ and this was driving some businesses towards larger suppliers which could guarantee allergen-free products.”
Cathy Amos, head of customer marketing at Brakes, said ‘may contain’ represented a huge challenge for the company, but it was working with the Natasha Foundation to improve allergen labelling, particularly on own-brand items, and said it would never substitute products to caterers that introduced allergens.
“We are working to have more ‘clean deck’ products because the more that we have in the supply chain the better. Then the allergens aren’t there in the first place, and that’s a big push from the ground up in product development,” she said.
Tony Ball, director of sales in foodservice at Bidfood, said that a regular six-monthly check of products often revealed an uptick in ‘may contain’ and although they updated their digital systems with the information, it relied on caterers also regularly checking the information.
Sarah Robb, foodservice marketing manager at Premier Foods Foodservice, shared her concerns that when updates were made to nutritional systems, they were not always rolled out to the end user, so Premier also emailed customers to ensure they were aware of allergen changes.
Matthew White concluded the topic by pointing out that public sector caterers were ahead of the game on menu labelling, which was being discussed by government as part of a potential Owen’s Law. He said the Alliance was happy to be part of consultations and share its experience with the private sector.
Julian Edwards, chair of the FCSI UK & Ireland, said: “It’s crucial that we recognise that this table does lead the way in special diet planning and allergen awareness, so if we could share what we do across the wider UK food operations, we really would be in a far better position.”
The table moved on to discuss recruitment and succession planning. Jill Whittaker, executive chair of HIT Training, suggested that the public sector was generally not good at selling the benefits of a career within the sector, or the development available, and that recruitment adverts were often poor, tending to focus on hours and pay.
“We’re not great at putting in our case studies for those who have risen through the ranks. We don’t talk enough about the diversity and the opportunity for individuals of all sorts of backgrounds,” she said.
She highlighted a young apprentice with Down’s Syndrome working at Sodexo as a production chef who had been ‘lifted up by the industry as a wonderful example of how inclusive the sector can be’. She said it was important to keep upskilling staff and giving them interesting opportunities, but added, “One of the mistakes we make is to assume that promotion and longevity in a role leads to management, which is a whole different skill set. We should be broadening their roles rather than sending them upwards all the time, because we’re great at making really good operators into terrible managers and then we have to move them on and start again.”
She said that if issues around nutrition, allergens and sustainability were important, it wasn’t enough to simply train managers - all staff from Kitchen porters up needed to understand their role in food safety.
On succession planning, Chris Ross, chair of ASSIST FM, described how 80% of his workforce was over 50 and very few younger people were coming up to take over leadership roles. ASSIST was now working with councils across Scotland to identify candidates for HIT apprenticeships to prepare them for leadership positions. He said it could be people who are new to the public sector or others looking for a change of direction.
“It’s about how we take people along that journey. This is an industry that we’re all passionate about, so it’s about selling that value,” he said.
He described how a school cook who was originally an accountant from Hong Kong had told him about a little boy who hugged her and thanked her for his Christmas dinner because he didn’t have turkey at home and it was his best day ever.
“Stories like this make people see the difference they could make with a career in the sector,” he said.
Molly Shaher, chair of PACE, pointed to the recent winner of Masterchef the Professionals, a former student of Westminster College, saying people like that should be ambassadors for public sector catering. She also felt the sector could do more to work with catering colleges to showcase the opportunities within the industry, contrasting it with the greater involvement of hotels which were consequently better at attracting young people. She wanted to see schools caterers, care homes and others paired with colleges to showcase the careers available.
Cathy Amos said that people like Raheem Morgan, the 2023 School Chef of the Year, was good at talking about his work and made a great ambassador.
Phil Shelley, senior operational & policy manager – soft FM, NHS England, talked about the importance of staff development. “We have a responsibility that all of our staff are trained and developed to a level because there is an accountability, certainly in the NHS.”
He said this was particularly pertinent to food safety and allergens and wanted the sector to highlight to potential employees the difference they could make in people’s lives. “Let’s be proud of what we do and keep lifting the profile,” he said.
Steve Elliott, sales director at Valentine Equipment, described how a school chef with a family had negotiated a 42-week year to give him a better work-life balance.
Julian Edwards added that Kirklees Council offered employees a range of benefits, including menopause support, and hoped such would be supported when councils tendered catering contracts. And Brian Robb reminded the table not everyone coming into the sector would be from the UK and said he was partnering with Job Centres to identify recruits.
Matthew White thanked everyone working to raise the profile of the sector and thought the appointment of Robert Richardson as chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality was helping to shine a spotlight on the work of the industry. And he urged everyone to share the Alliance’s new videos on their social media channels to maintain awareness.
Low-carbon kitchens and menus
Moving on to discuss low-carbon kitchens and menus, Paul Anderson, chair of the FEA and managing director of Meiko UK, said that proper training for kitchen staff made a big difference in reducing energy and water use. Manufacturers were increasingly looking at the whole lifecycle of equipment when considering carbon footprint, and he pointed to information about carbon emissions on the FEA website and its new course on CO2 and sustainability.
Meanwhile, Amy Fry said NFU members were reducing their carbon emissions, but that British meat already had a carbon footprint that was half the global average. She urged caterers not to remove meat from menus, but remember how nutrient dense it is, and how beneficial to dietarily vulnerable customers.
She highlighted an upcoming NFU webinar about working with the sector to meet carbon targets.
Chris Sanders, sales director at Radnor Hills, said that the public sector was doing a good job at driving the carbon agenda, citing tender specifications that include Scope 3 emissions. He said this was pushing his company to look at Science Based Targets and represented an opportunity for the sector to encourage other suppliers on the journey to Net Zero.
Lawrence Hughes, sales and marketing director for Falcon Foodservice, added that equipment sales were shifting from gas to electric and that manufacturers were also looking at alternative energy sources.
Differences in carbon calculation were cited as a challenge by Sodexo’s Wan Mak, who suggested there was no consistency in how menu CO2 was calculated. Andrew Pond, sales director at Civica, recommended tackling plate waste as an effective way to reduce CO2. Nadim Ednan-Laperouse speculated whether it might be possible to demonstrate how much carbon was saved by buying British.
Jayne Jones, vice chair of the Alliance and assistant director (facilities and production) NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, invited the room to listen to the debate she’d recently been involved with at the Food Ethics Council, around whether there should be a target within the public sector of 80% of food bought locally.
“We need to create change and think how do we create the systems shifts that allow us to provide more ethical, inclusive, nutritious food? We need to think more holistically about our food systems. We are managing food using the public purse and we have a responsibility to make sure that every pound works as hard as it can for taxpayers,” she said.
Mo Baines, chief executive of APSE, said that although the social value element had been left out of the new Public Procurement Act she urged local authorities to increase social value weighting in tenders to drive that forward.
“It is in the gift of public sector procurers to embed environmental, social and governance output into their procurement strategy,” she said, though she worried that with so many councils facing a funding crisis, efforts to save money would impact this momentum.
Cathy Amos praised the Menus of Change initiative and recommended its infographic highlighting 25 actions to reduce carbon emissions. Small changes made collectively could turn the dial, she felt.
Focus for public sector in a post-UK election
The final topic was to determine the focus for the public sector in an election year. Jayne Jones feared investment in the sector was an ongoing risk given how stretched local finances were and Mo Baines agreed, saying the long-term cost to the public would be greater because councils weren’t focused on prevention. She said caterers were an essential part of that prevention by ensuring schoolchildren, patients and care home residents were well fed.
“But public debt is increasing and more councils are falling into crisis and focused on statutory provision only,” she said.
Sue Cawthray, chief executive of Harrogate Neighbours and winner of the PSC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2023, said she had never seen the service facing this degree of crisis in 30 years, which only added to the challenge of attracting new recruits.
Julian Edwards said school caterers in London were preparing two budgets based on whether or not they would receive continued funding from the Mayor or a national scheme to deliver free meals. Those that had previously subsidised meals no longer had a reserve to draw on.
Anita Brown highlighted the disparity between meals pricing in London at £2.65 and the rest of England at £2.53, compared with Scotland at £3.33 and questioned who could plug the gap?
She said the offer to children did not usually differ, but with costs rising the difference needed to be covered because parents could not afford higher meal prices. LACA would be campaigning for parity in school meal funding across the UK, she added.
Phil Shelley said the NHS was also seeing more Trusts in financial measures and that was impacting purchasing, but also operations because recruitment was frozen.
“We must act on the issues that are important to us, we cannot sit and wait for someone else to make that decision. We make the decision and force the hand of whoever the politicians are, because we’re the driving force,” he said.
Brian Robb agreed saying: “We need to be banging that drum around ring fencing catering budgets.”
Concluding the debate Matthew White thanked everyone for their contribution and noted the Alliance action points for the year saying, “I know that the people around this table are committed to making these changes. We have to own this and we know there are things that we can do to effect the change and we must go out there and do that.”