Today, ethical or responsible sourcing of food products and ingredients is increasingly an important issue for consumers. They want to know where their food has come from, how many food miles it has travelled, and if it’s in season. They also want to understand its provenance to ensure they are consuming food products from farms that have a high focus on animal welfare. They care how their food has been produced, where it’s from and that it is sustainable.
So you can understand why caterers from all walks of life are now adopting a more ethical approach to their product sourcing, working in partnership with their suppliers and procurement teams to identify local, seasonal and sustainable food products
As such, the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark award is increasing in popularity, as caterers seek independent endorsement of their menus – with what is regarded as a real badge of honour. This award is helping them to demonstrate that they are serving freshly prepared high quality food that meets the needs and expectations of their customers.
In this article I talk to Suzanne Martin, Catering Manager at STEP Academy Trust, to learn about the challenges she and her team faced whilst transforming the catering operation across the whole trust and how they achieved the Catering Mark Award.
STEP Academy Trust currently consists of a group of nine academies that all work closely together with the aim of ensuring that each and every pupil receives an outstanding education. From the catering perspective, STEP is proud of the work it does to bring catering back in-house to improve standards, taking control of the meal services and ultimately ensuring that pupils are receiving the best food possible during the school day.
In September 2016, five of the STEP sites achieved the Bronze standard of the Soil Associations’ Food for Life Catering Mark. Suzanne Martin, The Catering Manager of STEP talks about why and how they achieved it: “Often we go into vulnerable schools and bring the catering back in house. We do a great job in delivering a fabulous service and thought why not go for an award that clearly demonstrates the standards we work to. Although Academies are not obligated to work to the government’s school food standards, we chose to do so and are very proud of the food we produce. The Catering Mark is proof of the quality and standards we work to.
Last term, we served over 44,000 meals, which works out to just over 1300 meals every school day. It’s a huge operation across all sites, and standards and quality are very important to us.
As we were already working to the government’s school food guidelines, it meant that only a few tweaks were really needed. For example, we had to change our butchers as one of our schools is halal and that provided a challenge to find a butcher that does farm assured, Red Tractor halal meat. But, with assistance from our procurement partner, Pelican, we were able to do this.
Documenting evidence is a large part of the Catering Mark and it has been helpful to have Pelican on side to support this process, as they are able to source the certifications we need from suppliers, which saves me a great deal of time.
I also sent all our recipes and menus over to Pelican's dietician and she identified what changes were needed and offered alternatives, which was so helpful. We also have fixed purchase lists, which means our chefs can only purchase produce from ‘locked-in shopping lists’, which ensures consistency. Yes, chefs have their own ways of cooking or preparing meals, however if the purchase lists have been agreed in advance, I can be happy in the knowledge that the produce meets the Catering Mark’s requirements.
Our cooks have really embraced the process, as it’s not just about changing ingredients but also about changing mindsets: changing the way we may have sourced produce or cooked meals. It also makes us more aware of our impact on the local economy and in supporting local producers.
On top of this, it helps towards making everyone more aware about what goes into food production, sourcing and recipes, and supports our continued focus on healthy eating. It’s an extremely satisfying and worthwhile scheme and I believe it is something that more organisations should be doing as standard.
With the Bronze standard in place, the Trust is working to produce recipe booklets that will be given to parents and pupils. It will include a ‘signature dish’ from all cooks and is designed to encourage parents and children to try the recipes out at home. By doing so, it offers transparency on what ingredients are being used by the catering teams day-in, day-out and the traditional cooking methods being used.
I am now looking towards the Silver standard to see what further improvements can be made. Some of our pupils come from rather deprived areas and so providing the best quality meals, using fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and having a focus on home-cooking is really important – for some it may be the only hot meal they will have that day. We want to give the best meals possible as a result.”
One of the big challenges for caterers is ensuring suppliers are able to help them meet the requirements, and be able to provide the right evidence and certification which is required as part of the Catering Mark’s inspection processes.
Here at Pelican, we have become a member of the Soil Association’s Catering Mark Supplier Scheme to fully support our customers in successfully gaining the Catering Mark award. As such, we are able to not only source products that fit within the Bronze, Silver and Gold criteria, but we understand the inspection process and can help caterers overcome challenges and prepare the evidence.
A real advantage is that we already have the supplier relationships in place, work with clients to create ‘locked in’ purchasing lists, and have online systems that track the details of all products, making it far easier and quicker to be able to track and monitor progress, in addition to access the evidence needed to demonstrate compliance.
Reports can be produced outlining product and supplier compliance, purchase histories can be documented and help is on hand from experts who have been working with the standard since it was created in 2009.
Once a caterer has gained a Catering Mark award, it is a real badge of honour that deserves recognition. As such, all organisations that achieve an award receive a communications pack to help tell customers about its success. Catering Mark bronze, silver or gold logos can be used on all menus and marketing materials to showcase the achievement which is reviewed and formally inspected on an annual basis, with intermittent spot checks.
Ultimately, being able to deliver food that meets the standards set out by the Food for Life Catering Mark is desirable for most caterers who take great pride in their work and wish to showcase the steps they have taken to deliver the freshest meals using local, seasonal and ethically-sourced produce. It ultimately provides the reassurance that today’s consumers are looking for when it comes to food provision.