Shock rise in school meal costs

STEVE DOWNES Parents and children in Norfolk are being hit by the spiralling cost of school meals, which are among the most expensive in England, it was revealed last night.

STEVE DOWNES

Parents and children in Norfolk are being hit by the spiralling cost of school meals, which are among the most expensive in England, it was revealed last night.

Steep rises have seen the price hit £1.85 a meal - a figure matched or exceeded by just a handful of areas, including the affluent London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The latest 10p hike means a family will fork out around £350 a year for each child eating in the canteen.

The increasing cost has combined with the introduction of government rules about healthy ingredients - leading to an initial 12pc drop in school meal take-up this term, which has now recovered to 6pc.

Ingredients cost 61p a meal in Norfolk - a generous amount compared to many areas.

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Last night, Peter Hawes, managing director of NCS, which provides most of the county's school meals, said the other main costs were labour and transport - which is believed to be high because of the long distances between schools in rural areas.

He added that the other costs included "cleaning, materials, uniforms, equipment depreciation and replacement, gas testing, meeting health and safety regulations, recruitment, payroll and human resources costs, as well as supervisor and management costs".

He added: "The new government changes have had an impact. We do try to encourage schools all the time to increase the take-up of school meals, and whenever there are changes it does have an impact and pupils and parents take time to adjust."

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: "It's shocking that Norfolk - which is not a wealthy area and is a low-wage economy - appears to be one of the highest prices outside London.

"I find it hard to justify. When all the focus is on the importance of healthy eating for children, we ought to be making sure the costs aren't prohibitive."

He said the size of the county was "a factor", but added: "We are not alone in being a rural county."

The healthy meals drive, triggered by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's TV crusade against schools serving the likes of Bernard Matthews' Turkey Twizzlers, has also had a big impact in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - even though meals are cheaper than in Norfolk.

In Suffolk the average cost of ingredients for a primary school is 51p, with each child paying £1.70.

A spokeswoman said the overall cost had been held since September 2005, despite increases in the meal specification, in a bid to encourage the purchase of meals.

Nonetheless, the healthy eating regime has led to a 10pc drop in children eating school meals, although the spokeswoman said: "This now appears to have bottomed out and we are hoping for continuing signs of a very slow recovery."

Cash takings at high schools, where there is a canteen system and no fixed meal price, have fallen 15pc since September.

In Cambridgeshire, school meals provided by the county council's in-house organisation Cambridgeshire Catering Services cost £1.75. No figure was supplied for the average cost of ingredients.

Around 100 out of 250 schools use the service, with the others making their own arrangements with private caterers.

Education spokesman Simon Cobby said: "The biggest drop off in school meals take-up was when Jamie Oliver launched his campaign. But we've also noticed a drop since the new government guidelines were introduced in September.

"The new standards are very admirable because they include the very best of healthy eating, but that's not necessarily what children like.

"If you tell children to eat pine nuts they will say 'no, thanks' and bring a packed lunch."