The government’s investment in free school meals over the past year has exposed the extent to which the education sector was dependent on outdated kit and under-resourced kitchens.
That’s the view of distributors belonging to buying consortium Cedabond, who were canvassed on their opinion of how the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) has impacted the catering equipment market since its launch last summer.
Cedabond said the consensus among its members is that the introduction of the UIFSM scheme prompted both a mixture of one-off sales as part of a general kitchen upgrade, coupled with more expansive refurbishment to cater for the general increase in the number of meals served.
Cedabond member Ian Berrow of C&C Catering Engineers agreed there was definitely a mix of both scenarios at the beginning.
“One of our regular clients is a local authority who took the opportunity to ‘grab the bull by the horns’, completely upgrading the less equipped sites where funds permitted. We found ourselves completing a number of full kitchen installations in addition to a series of upgrades to such items as combination ovens and dishwashing systems for instance.
“The older sites were still relying primarily upon atmospheric steaming ovens so the opportunity to upgrade to a combi gave them increased versatility and performance, as well as reduced cooking times, so it proved to be very popular move.
Glen Crossland of sister company C&C Catering Equipment concurs, but suggest that the expected rush of what he terms “major” projects didn’t actually materialise, possibly because of timing issues: “There were a number of one-off projects at first but there was no significant increase in major projects compared to previous years, probably because of the length of time it takes to plan these projects with the involvement of architects and main contractors.
“When that is coupled with the confusion over funding which many schools were experiencing, I don’t think they had the time necessary to plan a major project once the funding amounts were announced.
“We had a number of schools which updated dishwashing systems, replacing outdated sterilising sinks for example. On the whole, schools seemed to find that cooking the food was not the big issue. The majority could cope with that but it was the rush on the server and the challenge associated with getting the extra children through in the short time that really needed addressing quickly. A number of sites introduced secondary service points in their main halls, so adequate hot holding and service became critical.”
Peter Walker of Garners Food Service Equipment found that the company was more focused on kitchen refurbishments rather than one-offs:
“We’ve still got a couple of UIFSM projects to complete so the impact has been spread out more evenly than with others,” he says. “We would expect that if the Government commits to providing free school meals for every primary school age pupil, there will be another spike.”
Like other distributors, Garners found itself with customers upgrading to combination ovens as a relatively straightforward solution to meeting many schools’ principle objective of producing more meals. Servery areas have also become more important.
“A lot of focus goes on the kitchen but less on the servery, which plays a major role in the efficiency of that school’s operation and potential profitability,” explains Walker. “Primary schools tend to be within much older building stock than BSF-funded secondary schools but there are many examples of space-saving, high-production kit we can specify that will address these issues.”
Neil Montgomery, managing director of C&M Kitchen Engineering, also found that the biggest change brought about by the introduction of UIFSM was the upgrading of existing servery counters but warned that there is still a lot of work to be done:
“There are still some works to be undertaken due to access restraints but that is where being local has a benefit. It allows us to be more flexible with restricted access issues and to provide better response times, which benefits the local authorities.”
Cedabond members surveyed agreed that one of the most common problems with school installs, besides a lack of space, is the timeframe, with a heavy burden placed on fabricators and engineers in particular.
This, coupled with a lack of sufficient funds and sometimes a reluctance to embrace change, generates a “whole new set of challenges” besides the ones created by UISFM, said Cedabond.