CONCERNS are growing that plans to bring in free school meals for infants across Dorset are being rushed in with not enough funding.
Under the Government’s plan every child in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 in state-funded schools will receive a free school lunch from September 2014.
But with only six months to go until the start of the scheme, council bosses, teachers and suppliers said they have concerns about the delivery.
While everyone is in agreement that the idea behind the plan is good, there are fears there won’t be enough money available or enough time to make all the changes necessary.
The government has allocated a pot of £883,430 for Dorset County Council to buy equipment for schools, like ovens, food servers and fridges.
But the money is just for capital expenditure and not for staffing, council bosses said.
A spokesman for Dorset County Council said they would go from providing around 3,500 free school meals to a target of around 12,000, once the universal free school meals plan was implemented.
The county council is currently in the process of tendering for a new food provider and are hoping the contract will be awarded soon.
They are currently auditing schools to see who needs what equipment to get ready for the new scheme.
Speaking to the Echo, Toni Coombs, Dorset County Council’s cabinet member for education, said that it would be a ‘large ask’ to be ready to go by September.
She said: “We are going to do our best. We have the best interests of Dorset children at heart.”
The food contractors are currently in the process of re-tendering for the DCC contract for the new school year.
When asked if £883,430 was enough to fund the project, Mrs Coombs said she was concerned it would not be.
She said: “There are over 100 schools that are eligible and they all need something.
“It’s not a huge amount per school, that’s the difficulty we have got.”
When asked if additional money would need to be provided by DCC, Mrs Coombs said: “I will expect we will have to.”
She added that the money may have to come out of the Modernising Schools Project.
She said: “Depending on what the impact is, we will have to see how we restructure projects down the line.”
If they had to put additional money towards providing school meal infrastructure, then there could be other things that would have to go down the line, Mrs Coombs said.
When asked if it was just another pressure put on DCC by the government, Mrs Coombs said: “Yes.”
While everyone thought the idea of providing free school meals was good and provided health and social benefits, Mrs Coombs said her concerns were about how it was being implemented.
She said DCC ‘will do our best to deliver in time in September’.
She added: “We want to do the best for our schools and for our children.
“It’s all been rushed and it’s a shame. This could be a really good news story.”
The Echo posed the question on our Facebook page – asking what parents thought of the plans for free school lunches for infant pupils, did they think they were a good idea? Or a waste of money?
Here are just some of the comments.
Nadine Stone said: “All children should get it and it shouldn’t necessarily be a hot meal if the parents want to eat as a family in the evenings.
“There are a lot of working middle earning families who are struggling to feed their children every day but get no help. I think it’s a fab idea.”
Nicola Long said: “I think it’s a good idea. Too many kids aren’t getting the right food at home.”
Anita Sherriff said: “I’ve got two words to say: about time.”
James Tipping commented saying that every child should get a free meal, not just those ‘in need,’ and that meals should be from local suppliers using local food.
But Laura Ann Spicer said: “No, I would rather give my children a packed lunch, full of healthy food, not the rubbish they get fed at school – even if it’s supposed to healthy food, it isn’t.
“I like to cook for my children at tea time. I wouldn’t want them having two cooked meals a day.”
Yvonne Eve Retter said: “It’s just a carrot for the electorate. Don’t forget the elections are coming up.”
Chris Stone added: “It is a good idea but it should be means-tested. If a family is earning thousands per week then they don’t need a free meal.”
David Fisher said: “In principle I think it’s good idea. My only concern is how it's going to be funded.”
Provision will double
HEADTEACHER at Radipole Primary School Veronique Singer said their provision for hot school meals would double when the new scheme started in September.
She said that while she thought the idea of nutritious hot school meals for pupils was a good one, the issue was the way it had been implemented.
The school built its kitchen in summer 2011.
Mrs Singer, pictured, said: “We do have capacity and I planned for that and I know what we will need in terms of expansion, equipment and staff we will need and I have lots of that in place.
“The idea of having a nutritional hot meal during the day is very good.
“The problem for me is the money.”
She said she was concerned the money would not cover the things they needed including staff to help deliver the new scheme.
Mrs Singer said she was in a fortunate position in that they had the infrastructure and the room to put new equipment in.
She added: “There are lots of schools that just don’t have the room.”
'It's a challenge for all involved'
A DORSET school food provider said the new scheme was a challenge for schools and caterers.
Caroline Morgan, chief executive of Local Food Links Ltd, pictured inset, said their not-for-profit organisation supplies fresh school meals to students in 29 Dorset schools from the company’s bases in Bridport, Blandford and mini site at Dorchester Middle School.
They use locally sourced ingredients, which are either delivered chilled to schools and cooked fresh or delivered hot and ready to be served.
Although the idea of giving youngsters hot meals was a ‘fantastic’ one, Mrs Morgan said that they had needed to take a loan to buy new equipment to cover the big increase in the numbers they would be providing for.
She added that it was a challenge for schools and suppliers in such a short space of time.
She said: “If everybody had had more time it would have been very different, but we are where we are.
“We are working hard to try and support our schools.”
She added: “It’s an absolutely huge expansion in a short space of time.
“It’s a real challenge for schools and for us as an organisation.”
The policy was generally a good idea, Mrs Morgan said.
“I think it’s a good thing for Dorset. I think the culture of school meals has been eroded over the years.
“I think it’s fantastic – it will make having a hot meal at school normal again.”
DORSET school meals will be provided by a Dorset company, council bosses have promised.
The new provider for Dorset’s school meals will be ‘locally based’ and provide locally sourced meals to the highest standard, Dorset County Council said.
The Echo revealed last year how school meals were travelling more than 200 miles across country each day from a factory in Nottingham.
More than 100 schools in Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole were getting their meals from Cygnet Catering – although schools were able to opt out of the scheme and some made their own arrangements to provide meals.
The tender process is in its final stages.
A spokesman for Dorset County Council said: “We are still finalising the tender. But at the end of the tender process Dorset will have a provider that will be locally based using locally sourced food, produced to the gold standard.”
Free meals will help
ROS KAYES, parliamentary spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in West Dorset said she believed the new scheme would deal with several problems at once including: helping those on low incomes and helping youngsters to eat healthily.
She said: “I think it’s a really good idea.”
She said she supported initiatives like Dorset Food Links.
Mrs Kayes added that that she did not think there would be in issue with delivering the new scheme.
She said: “I don’t think there will be a problem.
“I think Dorset have got themselves very well organised round it.”
But she added: “It would have been more useful to have a longer lead in time.”
Nationally there was a concern that the scheme had been rushed in but Mrs Kayes, inset, said that in Dorset the staff at DCC were really ‘on top of it’ from what she had seen.
She said: “I think it was put in place with a shorter run in time than would have been ideal.”