Catering equipment firms have voiced concerns of a summer supply crisis if primary schools continue to delay purchasing decisions ahead of the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) programme introduced this September.
The government has made £150m available to help schools buy in the equipment they need and administer kitchen upgrades to cope with year one and two pupils taking up the offer of free meals.
But senior figures in the catering equipment industry are worried that hundreds of schools have yet to place orders even though the deadline is looming.
They fear suppliers might not be able to meet demand if decisions are left until the last minute, preventing schools from either getting the exact equipment they want or missing the deadline altogether. The number of primary schools in the country needed to make kitchen improvements to provide free meals reportedly runs to more than 2,700.
ScoMac’s managing director, Iain Munro, who is the CEDA board representative for the Small Schools Taskforce, said he was getting “mixed information” as to how the various local education authorities were approaching the situation.
“Obviously we don’t have access to them all on a regular basis but the general feedback from suppliers is many of them haven’t yet looked at what they need to be doing or the implications of what is required,” he warned.
Sigma Catering Equipment in the North East has more of an insight than most into what’s involved in equipping primary school kitchens for bulk catering as it was involved in pilot schemes that took place in Newham and Durham a few years back.
But company director, Chris Keith, still fears that schools could come unstuck if they continue to hesitate over decisions.
“I am finding that the schools that work alongside the local authority catering teams are better prepared, however I do fear that decisions are not being made early enough and we could find that as an industry there will come a point when demand cannot be met in the timescales,” he said.
Distributor BI Catering Equipment Services has already carried out more than 40 primary school kitchen upgrades throughout Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and Milton Keynes this year.
Its decision to engage early with regional authorities and schools has paid dividends, while it placed orders with manufacturers weeks ago to head off any supply problems over the summer.
Managing director, Andrew Jones, said that for the areas it covers, there was still progress to be made before all schools are ready for UFISM. “We have probably only got 40% of all the schools that we look after so far, so there is a good 60% that have yet to do anything about it,” he said.
While Jones points out that a good proportion of that 60% might already have sufficient facilities in place to provide school meals and therefore won’t need to invest in upgrades, there are still dozens of schools that need to give the matter attention. “Some schools are very proactive, but others are going to be left right in the lurch,” he predicted.
Paul Crowley, marketing manager of warewashing manufacturer Winterhalter, agreed with dealers that there was cause for concern. He said that research it has recently conducted among the biggest LEAs in the country produced a “very mixed” picture.
“Some LEAs are well on their way to implementing the project, some have started to think about it but are unsure as to exactly how to proceed. Quite a few have stated that they’re leaving it to each individual school. From the small sample we have questioned it appears that more are unprepared than prepared.”
Catering Insight contacted both the Department for Education and LACA earlier this week for their comments on the situation, but neither had responded at the time of publication.
Most major catering equipment suppliers to the education market appear to have identified the core products and planned an increase in levels of production from May onwards to allow time to build up stock levels.
But Gareth Newton, managing director of BGL Rieber, said all suppliers still need a degree of forward forecasting to prepare for demand.
“The reality is that all manufacturers are governed by a certain amount of lead time. We all carry stock, but where there are extreme peaks in demand, nobody can legislate for that. Equipment lead times can vary from a couple of weeks to a couple of months and the concern is those orders that aren’t in yet.”
Stuart Flint, training and business development manager at Electrolux, agreed that UIFSM would require suppliers to “manage customer expectations” and introduce mechanisms which streamline the supply chain where possible.
“Given our foresight in this respect, we’re confident we can uphold our excellent reputation even if a sudden surge in demand prompts added pressure to deliver,” he commented.
Earlier this month, Rational moved to reassure customers that it would be able to meet all school orders, regardless of volume, in the event of an upsurge in demand.
“Rational manufactures 50,000 plus combi steamers per year. That level of resource means we can guarantee that all orders, whether for one unit for a school or hundreds for a local authority, will be fulfilled within normal timescales — typically 10 working days,” said managing director, Lee Norton.
Malcolm Harling, sales and marketing director at Williams Refrigeration, harbours doubts over whether many school kitchens will be ready for September, noting the “significant” number of feasibility studies still taking place to ascertain requirements.
“I believe that there are many suppliers seeking market intelligence now to ensure that they have sufficient stocks available,” he said. “September 1st is approaching quickly and I am unsure with what we hear that all schools will be ready, thus this process is likely to overrun.”
Lincat said it was working closely with dealers in order to forecast as much of the demand as possible in advance, but admitted it was concerned that schools will leave it late.
“Those schools that perhaps haven’t made decisions are most likely to only require one or two pieces of additional equipment,” said marketing manager Rachel Smith. “They may think that, because they only need to order a small amount, it’s okay to leave it until August, but we would encourage them to contact their dealer and get the ball rolling.”
BI Catering Equipment Services’ Jones pointed out that it wasn’t only buyers that were guilty of under-planning. “It works the other way as well,” he said. “Only today I have had a major manufacturer onto me saying, ‘I would like to come and talk to you about school meals and the summer’. I have had to turn around and say, ‘I am sorry, you are about six months too late, everything has been ordered’.”
Dealers are convinced that if it does come down to a last-minute bun fight, whoever has the stock will win the business. However, Scomac’s Munro notes that it isn’t quite that simple when it comes to custom fabrication due to the lead times involved.
“There will be a requirement for new sinks, benches, plus hot and cold servery counters in amongst the normal summer volume of work — the problem we have as a business who manufactures these items is what to build in advance.”
He said ScoMac had taken the decision to use January and February production capacity to build up stocks of a core supermarket client’s inventory, thereby freeing up production space later in the year to cope with UFISM demand. It can also draw on additional capacity from sister companies Unitech and Corsair if necessary, he noted.
The sheer diversity in terms of what schools require is also creating challenges from a supply chain perspective. While some are looking at increasing existing capacities by adding combi ovens, bain maries and larger dishwashers, others have absolutely no legacy catering facilities at all.
This has led some to brand the government’s £150m war-chest a “sticking plaster solution” as the funds simply won’t stretch far enough to bring all kitchens up to the required standard.
“Despite the fact that the scheme’s launch last autumn may feel like quite some time ago, a number of head teachers have complained that the timescale for implementation is unrealistic,” said Electrolux’s Flint.
“What we need to consider is that while some schools may be able to increase their production levels without a great deal of additional investment, there are others with particularly small kitchen spaces, which have had a major project on their hands.”
ScoMac’s Munro said one of his concerns is how much of the £150m will be absorbed by professional fees, such as architects, rather than being invested in new equipment.
“It would appear schools have been left to carry out the implementation without any guidelines on how it can be supported and any support helplines set up have been done by the industry,” he said. “The lack of knowledge or understanding in the schools will also, in some situations, allow for suppliers to exploit the opportunity and maybe not provide best value.”
Those proud of their involvement in the industry also fear that if the summer does bring supply problems, it could negatively impact the image of the catering equipment industry given the national importance of the initiative.
“Schools or LEAs will only have themselves to blame if they leave their ordering to the last minute,” said Winterhalter’s Crowley. “It would be unfair to blame the industry when the public sector has known this initiative was coming for some time.”
In an interview with the BBC last month, School’s Minister, David Laws, said he was “not complacent” about the problems, but was “yet to find a school that with the right support and advice cannot actually deal with these issues”.
He claimed the “vast majority” of schools were on track to deliver the changes they need to comply with UIFSM.
Last week, Catering Insight reported that many suppliers fear schools and local authorities are leaving it late to prepare for UIFSM. Some predict that last-minute ordering over the summer could result in supply problems for products that require a lead time.