Bedford Borough Council has agreed to a new school meals contract – but meals will cost more.
The portfolio holder for families, education and children’s services, Cllr Jane Walker, agreed in August to ensure the continuation of the school meals service for the 2023-24 academic year after a new contract was awarded.
But the new contract means that the cohort of schools using the service will see an increase in prices.
Last night’s Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Monday, September 4) asked for the background to this executive decision.
Chris Morris, the council’s chief education officer, told the committee that the council is one of a few remaining local authorities that still offers a buyback school meal service.
“The [former] food service contract ceased at the end of the last academic year, requiring us to re-tender or to cease the service,” he said.
“When we first went out to tender we actually put a cap on the prices.
“We said ‘right, if you’re going to bid this is the maximum that we would expect you to charge’.
“[We were] trying to minimise the impact on families and keep costs relatively [low].
“Sadly we didn’t receive any bids for that process, and what we found when we went back out to the incumbent provider, Caterlink, to see what could be done.”
He added that Caterlink explained that the cost of living, inflation and fuel rises would have to be taken into account with any new contract.
“They gave us a price that was sadly close to 20 per cent higher than what the current price was,” Morris said.
“Food inflation is running at higher than national inflation, but it was still slightly higher than where we would have anticipated to be.
“We don’t have any other options on the table and we had 25 schools, 27 sites if you include those of multiple sites, who obviously had indicated they wanted to be part of this contract.
“So the decision before you is effectively for the case to accept the offer that was on the table in order for us to continue to provide a school meals contract.
“We didn’t have enough time to go back out to the market,” he added.
He said that there will be an impact on families that pay for school meals, but they will “know what the cost is”.
“Those that are on income-related free school meals will still get them for free,” he added.
“But that’s not to negate the fact that the schools would have to pay for those increased costs from their pupil premium budget,” he said.
The council’s website shows that the cost per meal to schools or paying families will be £2.82 per meal for primary school meals and £2.92 for secondary school meals.
Reacting to the decision, Liberal Democrat Group Leader Councillor Henry Vann said: “This is a punishing increase of almost 20% for pupils at those schools that use this council buyback service.
“We know the government has let food inflation get out of control, but the Council should do better than pass this on to schools and parents. They are sitting on a reserve that could do much more to reduce the pain without any impact on other council taxpayers.
“Instead, they are making it very difficult for parents to fund this extra cost and are expecting schools to use pupil premium money to cover their increased costs – important funds that are for the education of the most disadvantaged pupils.”
“In addition, on Facebook, Lib Dem Councillor, Michael Headley (Putnoe) has said “It’s outrageous that the Conservatives on the council have put up primary school meal prices by a whopping 20% at schools with a council contract – despite sitting on a School Meal reserve of £115,360.
“At the time of this cost of living crisis, this is the wrong thing to do. This will apply to the 25 schools with the council contract.”
by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter
Update: This article was updated on 10 September 2023 at 7:20pm. We added a response from Bedford Borough Liberal Democrats Council.