With the government ploughing £150m into refurbishing and upgrading primary school kitchens to kick-start the free school meals initiative, many distributors have encountered their fair share of aged and tired-looking catering facilities in recent months.
Yet even by normal standards, WilcoxBurchmore knew it had come across something in dire need of modernisation when it began work at ARK Elvin Academy, formerly Copland Community School in Wembley.
The kitchen house was first introduced to the ARK Schools by Independent Schools Catering Consultancy (ISCC) in 2013 when it refurbished ARK Bentworth in Acton, London. But when co-founder and director, Cathy Wilcox, went into the ARK Elvin Academy’s kitchen she was quite literally taken aback by the sight that confronted her.
“Shock — it has to be said, total shock,” she says. “No ventilation, electric plugs studded around an archaic service pole and the most uneven floor with cracked tiles I’ve ever slipped on!”
With no investment for several years and morale low amongst the in-house catering team, it was clear the site required a complete redesign and a commitment to buying new catering equipment in order to improve output.
However, the brief it faced was a tough one, not least because the school is being rebuilt in three years, so while it was important to ensure H&S regulations were met, the spend on the building fabric had to be kept to a minimum.
“We spoke to our client explaining that ventilation was a ‘necessity’ as was getting safety flooring down,” explains Wilcox. “We could make good the walls, re-route the services — putting in a cap rather than spine — and put in equipment like a combination oven that could be re-used.”
It also specified a commercial dishwasher to replace an impractical way of managing dirty plates and dishes. “What we had assumed was a fully-functioning automatic rack machine was actually hand-filled each day, then manually emptied afterwards,” reveals Wilcox.
It was certainly one of the more eventful projects the company has managed. There was nobody on site who knew the plumbing details, which led to a “trial and error” approach, while the flooring was so uneven it took six layers of base before the Polyflor could be laid.
With all the work done, however, the kitchen workspace is now far clearer and tidier, giving the catering staff more room to carry out their tasks.
One ancient aspect of the former kitchen does remain, though: an original mixer from 1962.
“It is now working alongside their brand new Hobart dishwasher. I don’t know which gives them most pleasure!” exclaims Wilcox.
With the Wembley school completed, WilcoxBurchmore was also invited to transform the kitchens at ARK Franklin Primary Academy in Brent and ARK Swift Primary Academy in White City.
In all three instances, ventilation was provided by Clean Air Installations, fabrication by Magnatech, combi ovens by Rational, prime cooking by Blue Seal, cold rooms by Storer and refrigeration by Gram. Hobart provided warewashing for one site and Meiko the other two.
With the advent of free school meals, ARK Franklin knew it would need to provide more meals than usual and that its existing kitchen just wouldn’t cope.
The academy’s operations director, Rosie Pye, said the school relied upon WilcoxBurchmore to conceive a new kitchen design and recommend suitable kit for its purposes: “The results are fantastic. One of our most valued additions is the cold room, which means we can now cook all meals from fresh, rather than having to rely on frozen foods. They have been utterly professional, getting all the information we needed to us on time, and dealing with any queries promptly.”
Over at ARK Swift, chef Debbie Warner is also happy with its new kitchen: “We’ve got more space, and a bigger prep area — it’s so much easier to serve, especially with the electric hot plates. The old gas ones used to blow out every time somebody opened a door. It doesn’t look like a school kitchen any more. It looks like a proper restaurant kitchen.”
Kitchen funding gap runs into the millions
The roll-out of the Universal Free School Meals initiative has seen councils going millions of pounds over budget to get their kitchens up to scratch.
The scheme has been plagued with tales of schools and local authorities taking money from other budgets to bridge a shortfall in funds.
North Yorkshire County Council reportedly has the largest number of small primary schools in the country, but the £1.4m capital funding it was awarded to prepare for UIFSM stretched nowhere near far enough.
The county council’s school meals service, North Yorkshire County Caterers, has had to spend more than £660,000 from its own reserves to ensure sufficient equipment is in place to cope with the free meals service. Its cash has gone on everything from extra cutlery and hot trolleys to additional ovens and refrigeration.
The case in North Yorkshire echoes that of the Isle of Wight Council. Buying catering equipment for the UIFSM school meals scheme has cost it £650,000 even though it was only awarded £226,000 in government funding. It has had to find cash from other budgets to finance the kitchen improvements.
Elsewhere, Reading Borough Council is understood to have been £207,000 short of the cash needed to complete the kitchen work it has undertaken locally, while Wokingham Borough Council faces a funding gap of £210,000.
All of those examples still fall some way short of the deficit facing Kent County Council. It was allocated £2.7m to implement the scheme, including extending existing or building new kitchens, but said the real cost of fulfilling the improvements was nearer £7m.”