School meals: Price ‘three times’ more important than quality

THE TENDERING process for school catering in Scotland has come under attack during a debate in Scottish Parliament yesterday.


According to Labour MSP Claire Baker, price is “three times” more important to a contract than quality. Baker has urged the government to redress the balance as part of the country’s National Food Policy.


She said: “The Scotland Excel contract for school catering [which covers most local authorities] is awarding a weighting of 65% to price compared with 20% to quality. Cost is therefore given more than three times greater weighting than quality. That is not a balance.”


Baker also quoted figures released recently showing that the average cost of a school meal in Scotland is “as low as £1.68”. She added: “Although we can point towards local authorities such as East Ayrshire Council and its focus on local food sourcing, it is evident that local authorities have been encouraged towards national procurement contracts as a means to deliver best value.”


Last week, ministers met local authority representatives to discuss school meals. School meal standards in Scotland, which were set by legislation in 2008, must be met before any tender is considered.


Responding to the criticisms, Richard Lochhead, the cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment said a working group has been set up to refresh the “hungry for success initiative”, which was launched in 2003 to “revitalise” school meals.


“The still hungry for success initiative will look at how to continue the school meals revolution in the weeks and months ahead. Taking on board any lessons that can be learned from the past few weeks from the horse meat scandal, sourcing and other factors were discussed at the meeting, of course, but we should recognise that the school meals that are served in Scotland are of quality and are traceable. We should celebrate that in this debate, and not perpetuate any myths that may be out there.”


Lochhead also called for more food in the public sector to come from Scotland. In 2007, 34% of food that was publicly procured for schools and care homes was Scottish. The estimated figure now, he said, is 48% across the whole public sector. Uptake of school meals has also risen for three consecutive years to 48.7%, he said.


Other ministers raised concerns about the tendency for contracts to favour large companies rather than small ones. Lib Dem MSP Tavish Scott referred to the Scottish government’s study on the issue which found that “price is still the dominant factor within food procurement decisions and this pressure is increasing”.


He explained: “There needs to be strong support for small businesses and contracts need to be sized appropriately. That all seems to be at the heart of what needs to change about the way in which food is procured in the public sector, whether for our schools, hospitals or care homes, or more generally.”


  • March’s Footprint magazine includes an analysis on the race to the lowest price in public sector procurement.