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Scotland’s caterers celebrate at ASSIST FM annual conference

6th Jun 2024 - 04:00
The ASSIST FM annual conference saw a celebration of achievement at its annual awards plus plenty of insight from the speaker presentations, writes David Foad.

Catering and other facilities services provided by Scotland’s 32 unitary local authorities were represented at the annual ASSIST FM conference in Glasgow recently, where delegates were welcomed by the chair Christopher Ross.

Along with a programme of speakers, the event included an annual awards night dinner as well as an exhibition showcasing a range of key suppliers to the sector.

Dr. Kate Wilson 

Dr. Katie Wilson of the Urban School Food Alliance (USFA) delivered an impactful presentation on the organisation’s strides towards a sustainable school food program in the United States. Highlighting USFA’s significant influence, Wilson noted that with 18 of the largest school districts serving 4.2m students daily and providing 715m meals annually, the Alliance is poised to be a leader in sustainability.

She emphasised the USFA’s remarkable progress in local procurement, which has skyrocketed from US$4.5m to US$33m on average. This shift was bolstered by a US$4m grant aimed at improving the food system. She outlined key actions necessary to achieve their sustainability goals.

The USFA has leveraged its buying power to challenge major food producers, advocating for healthier and more humane products. After an 18-month campaign, they succeeded in pushing for antibiotic-free, additive-free chicken, which benefits all schools as producers are compelled to maintain a single, high-quality product line. Despite facing legal challenges and opposition from delivery companies, the USFA remained steadfast, even purchasing their own delivery trucks to ensure compliance.

In partnership with the Culinary Institute of America, the USFA developed a training programme for school meal chefs. This initiative, initially involving 24 chefs, expanded to train 650 kitchen supervisors, fostering skills to incorporate more plant-based meals. The programme, supported by private funding, also ties into the Farm to School scheme, enhancing local sourcing and supporting small farmers.

The USFA has introduced composting and operational changes to reduce food and plastic waste. Initiatives like inviting local farmers to collect food waste for pig feed and organising Plastic-Free Lunch Days twice a year are part of this effort. The development of a compostable meal tray, driven by the USFA’s purchasing power, further demonstrates their commitment to sustainability.

She concluded by urging for proactive solutions and open conversations, highlighting the importance of not only identifying problems but also driving actionable change.

Four nation roundtable 

A round table debate brought to light critical issues affecting school meals in England, Wales, and Scotland, with a strong focus on funding, sustainability, and staffing.

Michael Hales from England emphasised that funding is a major concern, with England’s current £2.53 per meal falling short. He said LACA was campaigning to increase this to £3 to align with other UK regions and he highlighted the challenges posed by food price inflation, rising staff wages, and the need to review School Food Standards.

He also called for extending Free School Meals (FSM) eligibility to all families on Universal Credit. Sustainability efforts include introducing wonky vegetables and fruits into school meals and moving towards more plant-based options. However, the sector faces staffing shortages, especially post-Brexit, and the difficulty in attracting young people to part-time, term-time roles.

Judith Gregory from Wales discussed the Welsh Government’s commitment to providing Universal Free School Meals (UFSM) for all primary schoolchildren, starting in 2021. The meal rate has increased to £3.20, and the rollout will extend to Years 5 and 6 by September 2024.

This initiative has increased the demand for special diets, prompting a review of support for caterers. Gregory highlighted efforts to support local food producers and the potential for expanding UFSM to secondary schools, budget permitting. Despite increased staffing, the sector still faces pressures, but tools like LACA’s Meals Analyser can offer support.

Chris Ross represented Scotland, pointing out the rising demand for clean labels and special diets. He stressed the importance of making catering roles attractive and creating career pathways. Ross noted the challenge of inconsistent responses to job advertisements across different areas and the need for better succession planning. He advocated for the use of technology to improve productivity and sustainability in smaller kitchens facing staff shortages.

The debate underscored the shared challenges across the UK and the need for coordinated efforts to ensure nutritious and sustainable school meals for all students.

Natasha Allergy Research Foundation 

And Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse told conference about the work of the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation. They said allergies were still a misunderstood condition, in families and in the food industry.

They spoke about the current Natasha Clinical Trial using oral immunotherapy to treat children and young people allergic to peanuts and cow’s milk. They announced the expansion of the three-year trial to Scotland, with hospitals in Edinburgh and Aberdeen due to join later this year.

ASSIST FM Awards 2024

Outstanding Contribution to Cleaning Award

Winner: Tayside Contracts - Perth & Kinross Council

Sponsored by Nilfisk

Outstanding Contribution to Catering Award

Winner: Glasgow City Council

Sponsored by McCain Foods

Outstanding Contribution to Facilities Management  Award

Winner: North Lanarkshire Council

Sponsored by Muller Milk and Ingredients

Sustainability Award

Winner: South Lanarkshire Council

Sponsored by Muller Milk and Ingredients

Digital and Technology Award

Winner: Renfrewshire Council

Sponsored by GT Cleaning Machines

Community Award

Winner: Shetland Council

Sponsored by CRB Cunninghams

Local Authority Cook of The Year Award

Winner: Anne-Marie French, Scottish Borders Council

Sponsored by Brakes

Supplier of the Year Award

Winner: Müller

Special Recognition Award

Winner: Nicky Docherty

Written by
David Foad