The Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) initiative, which provided a major boost and projects for many catering equipment distributors and suppliers, is under serious threat of closure.
The Conservative Party manifesto released yesterday ahead of the 8 June general election detailed a plan to scrap the UIFSM scheme, which the party claims will save £650m annually. However, the Conservatives revealed they would instead offer free school breakfasts, which they believe could be delivered at a tenth of the cost, around £60m a year.
Since the scheme’s launch in 2014, the catering equipment industry has been a beneficiary to the tune of £150m provided to local authorities to help them upgrade school kitchens to keep up with lunch demand.
Distributors such as Court Catering Equipment saw a massive spike of project work head their way, with the London-based firm recording a 25% turnover increase in the year after the scheme was rolled out.
MD Nick Howe responded to yesterday’s announcement, saying: “I find it hard to believe that this has been thought through thoroughly. All the hard work done by LACA, the Children’s Food Trust and many others over the past 4 years in introducing the UIFSM is going to waste. It has been proven that there has been improvement in educational performance, let alone a boost to children’s health.
“Court Catering has designed, supplied and improved hundreds of schools in many London Boroughs and elsewhere in the Home Counties. In one borough alone the average take up rate of free school meals is nearly 92%. If this benefit is removed, ultimately it will be the children that suffer.”
However, he was less concerned about the effect on the catering equipment industry, adding: “I don’t think this will have much impact on equipment spend as we have already seen a slowdown in spend in the primary school sector. This is twofold: many schools have already had their kitchens upgraded, and there appears to be far less funding available – albeit we have a good number of school development projects of various sizes for this summer’s works.”
Manufacturers have also picked up a sizeable amount of work, including MKN. Marketing and PR manager Anja Halbauer detailed: “The free school meal programme had a good impact on us. A healthy school meal is very important for kids, and to produce these free meals professional equipment is needed.
“Since there are not always trained chefs in school kitchens, a technical solution with automatic programmes and easy operation systems as the MKN combi steamer is of great help. We just hope that while the politicians find their final solution they think of our future, which is the kids in schools.”
Display counter provider Victor Manufacturing also received an initial boost of UIFSM-prompted orders back in 2014. Marketing and communications manager Peter Brewin explained: “Since then, Victor’s sales levels in relation to this important sector have returned to similar levels prior to the introduction. As such, I cannot see the scrapping of free school meals impacting on the demand for counter and display equipment.
“More concerning is the perceived reduction in overall funding to schools which clearly will affect investment decisions for catering equipment.
“When considering the introduction of free breakfasts across the primary sector, it is my view that the majority of schools will be able to produce breakfasts from their existing catering equipment and no additional equipment will be required.”