Navigating spiralling costs in the school kitchen

Increasingly expensive ingredients – from meat and dairy to pasta and potatoes – combined with soaring energy costs, see independent school caterers drawing on resourcefulness and creativity to keep hungry students satisfied with tasty and nutritious food while also keeping spend manageable, discovers Kim Renfrew

This year has been a particularly grim one for the price of the two key components of the school caterers’ kitchen: food and fuel. A complex web of causes is driving the problem, including lingering economic consequences of the pandemic, coupled with the impact of the invasion of Ukraine (one of the world’s biggest wheat producers) by Russia (one of the world’s top crude oil and gas producers), which has seen the cost of staples such as pasta and cooking oils climb along with energy and fuel prices.

Clever adjustments

Think tank and campaigning body The Food Foundation’s Food Prices Tracker reports that inflation on food is increasing at an even faster rate than predicted. In June 2022, it reported that prices rose in every category apart from sugar and sweets, with the greatest increases seen in basics such as milk, cheese, eggs, meat and vegetables.

Ben Evans, headmaster of Windlesham House School


The charity goes on to note that rising costs are having a particular impact across the whole education sector, which is having to make “clever adjustments” to catering provisions to counter these hikes.

Ben Evans is headmaster of Windlesham House School, a co-educational day and boarding prep school in West Sussex, which outsources its catering provision to Holroyd Howe. He has seen his school’s food costs rising by at least 7% “and more on certain items”, says Evans, in addition to the impact of increasing staff salaries. “This has affected our budgets, which we have had to increase to maintain the quality of food offering that we want to deliver.”

“We have had to increase our budget to maintain the quality of food offering that we want to deliver” – Ben Evans, headmaster, Windlesham House School

Impact of escalating costs felt across the food service industry

Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent, which provides catering and hospitality services to prep, senior and boarding schools around the UK, says that the full force of escalating costs is being felt across the food service industry as a whole, including independent school catering. “The bottom line is that the cost of menus is increasing, and budgets are not going as far as they used to,” she says. “Therefore, it’s important that we use the expertise and agility of our professional chefs, caterers and suppliers to adapt menus and create tasty, nutritious dishes within budget using sustainable and cost-effective ingredients.”

Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent, which provides catering and hospitality services to prep, senior and boarding schools

“The bottom line is that the cost of menus is increasing, and budgets are not going as far as they used to” – Deborah Homshaw, CH&CO Independent

For her teams, this has involved making more use of seasonal and local produce, thereby reducing transportation – and thus fuel – costs. It has also meant that the company continually reviews the price of fresh ingredients and works with schools to agree on alterations that need to be made because of changes in availability or cost.

allmanhall is a food procurement service that works with a number of independent schools, including Eton College, Repton School, St Paul’s Girls’ School and Burgess Hill Girls School, and begins work with Oakham School in the coming academic year. Senior relationship manager Katrina Lane – who, as former head of catering and hospitality at Winchester College, has hands-on experience of the issues facing school kitchens – voices concern that some chefs will have to reduce or change their use of fresh, quality ingredients. This will mean that “nutritious, balanced menus that meet the school food standards will become increasingly difficult to achieve”. She believes these changes will be felt especially by those students who suffer from allergies or who need special diets, since the products required for these are seldom the cheapest option.

Procurement-through-to-payment software from Zupa is used for stock management, strict portion control and visibility of live pricing


Changing long-established practices and implementing workarounds

In July, the BBC reported that beef was becoming so expensive that many schools were removing it from the menu and replacing it with less costly options, such as pork. Both Homshaw and Lane have seen schools taking beef entirely out of their kitchens (“even in traditional favourites such as lasagnes”, remarks Homshaw) and moving to more plant-based meals instead. “These are often a cheaper option than meat-based alternatives, and they also have a longer shelf life,” adds Lane.

allmanhall’s senior relationship manager Katrina Lane was previously head of catering and hospitality at Winchester College


She believes that many schools are going to have to review, then change, embedded practices and implement workarounds, in order to deal with the demands on their budgets. To do this requires skilled, imaginative cooks. Yet, in addition to food-cost issues, Lane also draws attention to the fact that schools must also contend with “the ongoing staffing crisis [which] leaves many caterers struggling to find creative chefs able to make low-cost innovative adaptions to their menus”.

Her colleague, Jo Hall, allmanhall’s communications and development director, also cautions that the ingredient replacement route is not without risks. “When substitutions are made, it’s important to consider false savings. For example, by switching to a different product, will yield be reduced? Is more of a new product required to achieve the same flavour? Understanding the false economies and trying to sample products before making the change are simple steps school caterers can make,” she emphasises.

allmanhall’s communications and development director Jo Hall

“Understanding the false economies and trying to sample products before making changes are simple steps school caterers can make”  – Jo Hall, communications and development director, allmanhall

Chicken and fruit especially costly

Although Windlesham House School hasn’t yet taken the step of swapping out pricier items on the menu for cheaper alternatives, Ben Evans has certainly observed significant increases in the cost of the ingredients his pupils are eating, singling out chicken and fruit as especially expensive. He recognises that his catering manager will need to be particularly dextrous in terms of menu planning. “This may mean some changes,” he says, “although I am confident these won’t be noticed by our pupils or staff.”

There are some changes that have been discussed in the media, however, that Evans is adamant will not be introduced at his school: “The one thing that will never happen is portion sizes being decreased,” he states. “Children need to be fed well and nutritiously; this is always the priority.”

Slow cooking and robotic dishwashing

Not all tweaks to the school menu involve replacing ingredients, however. The other aspect of the cost of living crisis affecting education is the spiralling cost of energy, with some schools reporting that their bills will go up by hundreds of per cent, according to the Financial Times.

This is having a knock-on effect for catering services, as Deborah Homshaw points out. She says that thinking about the ways in which ingredients are prepared will now become vital in the effort to keep costs down: “The method of cooking chosen can make a real difference, such as slow cooking at lower heats with different cuts of meat and combining oven use to reduce operating timings.” Homshaw also predicts that technology could become another weapon in the battle to keep schools’ costs down “for example, robotic dishwashing could start to make more ground as we all try to limit the cost of energy and the continuing increasing cost of labour”.

Constantly juggling menu plans, meal components and preparation methods in the face of unpredictable price indices is making it difficult for schools to plan finances effectively, especially “when costs are changing day to day”, says Ben Evans, who believes that the advantages of outsourcing Windlesham House’s food offering are “now even greater than ever they were before”.

He believes “the benefits are huge in terms of costs”, since he can see clear budgets for every aspect of the catering operation, including staff, food, price per meal and per pupil, and equipment, and “any overspends are quickly noticed and stopped or prevented altogether”.

Mealtime for boarders at Windlesham House School in West Sussex


Large volume ordering

Schools that choose to outsource their canteen provision can profit from the ability to buy in bulk, says Homshaw, who notes that: “Great supplier relationships […] are priceless in such challenging times [and] we can forward-order in large volumes, creating a smaller impact of change to our clients and reducing the impact of supply chain challenges.”

Hayden Hibbert, client relations director at the independent food procurement company allmanhall


Nevertheless, allmanhall’s client relations director, Hayden Hibbert, recognises that contracting out catering may not be the right choice for every school: “The key reasons for considering in-house, ie not outsourcing, are control and cost. This strikes a real chord at the moment,” he says. “What seems an easy, low-risk option may actually come at a significant cost,” since many caterers operate on a ‘cost plus’ model, based on the cost of catering, plus a management fee.

For this reason, some schools opt instead to keep catering in-house but use a food procurement company to streamline ordering and consolidate suppliers, for example.

Other schools opt for a third route, keeping the cooking and creation of meals in-house, but contracting out the technology that manages their food supply chains and budgets. For example, Oundle School, King’s College School Wimbledon and Harrow School use procurement-through-to-payment software from Zupa, which can be deployed for reducing wastage through tight stock management and strict portion control, and for keeping abreast of live pricing – key problems that the company’s CEO, Ollie Brand, has seen many schools facing in the current climate.

School fees need to remain as affordable as possible

The combined effect of unpredictable ingredients pricing, skyrocketing energy and fuel costs, along with the damaging financial consequences of Covid, may well mean that independent schools will have to pass on their growing costs to parents through increased school fees.

Ben Evans recognises that fees will be unavoidably impacted by the continuing increases in the cost of living. He says that “some schools will have increased their fees by up to 10% to recover some of these costs”, but he goes on to note that, at the core of this, “we must remember that fees also need to remain as affordable as possible”.

He believes the most effective strategy that schools can adopt over the coming, unpredictable period is “careful budgeting, flexibility and creativity with menu planning [which] will all become increasingly important”.

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