Helena Drakakis explores the education sector and the range of opportunities it presents wholesalers
Five years ago, the Turkey Twizzler became a symbol of what not to feed the nation’s students. In the intervening years, awareness around healthy eating has grown, but childhood obesity remains, as do pressures on education budgets. For wholesalers, understanding the challenges and opportunities within the education sector is key to success.
Understanding the caterer
“School caterers have a big part to play in ensuring pupils are eating nutritious and balanced meals to get them through the day,” says Premier Food’s channel marketing manager, Sarah Robb. In fact, new School Food Standards introduced in 2014 provided schools with guidelines to achieve this.
Among the requirements, high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish, fruit and vegetables, bread, cereals, whole grains and potatoes must be provided.
Moreover, instead of being shoehorned into local authority menu plans, cooks now have greater flexibility to take advantage of cheaper seasonal produce and embrace food trends and regional variety.
Suppliers working with customers will get ahead if they understand their needs. Premier, for example, works with its customers to provide time-saving solutions. Its McDougall’s flour and flour-based mixes need only water and can be used in dishes from scones to pizzas.
The education sector accounts for 30% of Welsh drinks company Radnor Hills’ business. It has designed its ranges in line with legislation, but also says it stays abreast of popular flavour profiles. “Because we work so closely with schools, it means we get regular feedback from our consumers on what they like and what they want to see more of,” says sales director Chris Saunders.
Free school meals and holiday provision
When universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) were introduced in 2014, it created 250 extra jobs for wholesalers with 6.6 million extra items delivered in the year to 2016. Given various attempts to either abolish the scheme or change it to reduce the number of children eligible, threats to its continuation may still arise. In the meantime, schools are grappling with squeezed budgets.
“UIFSM has a positive impact on economies of scale, but a static budget since 2014 makes it increasingly difficult for many schools to cover costs,” says James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors. “The £2.30 allocation for UIFSM to feed reception and year one and two in primary schools may not be sufficient to cover costs in the event of shortages or substitutions post-Brexit. The pressure to increase funding is ongoing.”
Meanwhile, holiday meal provision is currently only supported by a patchy network of initiatives, giving wholesalers another opportunity to provide support and advice.
This summer, Bidfood teamed up with food waste charity Fareshare to run a nationwide Action Against Holiday Hunger campaign across nine depots. Activity included donating surplus stock, volunteering chefs’ time and advising families how to cook on a budget.
“This is such an important subject and we are merely scratching the surface when looking at the millions of children who go hungry every day during the school holidays,” says Bidfood’s group sales and marketing director, Andrew Kemp.
According to Gary Mullineux, interim managing director at Caterforce, wholesalers must align themselves with shifting trends around meat and dairy. “Children and young adults are becoming far more conscious about the environment, their personal diet and health, and animal cruelty, which all have a huge impact on the foodservice industry,” he says.
This may be particularly true in higher education food outlets, where students are looking for healthy, good-value and ethically-sourced foods.
King’s College in London, for example, has opened a 100% plant-based café. Several other universities and colleges have also signed up to the Food for Life Served Here scheme run by the Soil Association. The food accreditation scheme has bronze, silver and gold categories, and rewards freshly prepared food, food free from trans fats, sweeteners and additives, and ingredients from ethical and sustainable sources.
Over the past few years, higher education has also seen a shift away from sit-down meals, with grab-and-go the preferred option. This gives wholesalers scope to offer globally inspired street food and sustainable packaging.
Free-from and allergens
It’s become vital that wholesalers also support caterers to provide nutritious dishes to students with specialist dietary requirements. “From gluten intolerances to common food allergies, when in a small environment where there are a high number of students, control needs to be strict without making students feel as though they’re missing out,” says Premier Food’s Sarah Robb.
Making it as easy as possible for caterers to understand allergen information is also vital, and Premier works to provide clear labelling on products such as Bisto Gluten Free, for example.
While there have been calls for a manufacturer-led-and-maintained allergen database, it is down to wholesalers to provide this information. “It’s important suppliers and wholesalers work together to help caterers understand allergens that are common among students,” adds Robb.