Edinburgh's school meals service under pressures as demand grows, key report finds

Growing demand for school meals is putting pressure on Edinburgh’s school catering service, which is already facing problems because of inflation, staff recruitment and ageing kitchens.

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And officials have warned of “significant capacity issues” in at least six of the city’s school kitchens.

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A report to Tuesday’s (September 20) education committee says food inflation has been running at twice the level recorded by the Consumer Price Index.

It says the catering service is struggling to fill vacancies, especially with pay rates 10-20 per cent below the market rate. And it notes that 60 per cent of the service’s production kitchens are more than 20 years old, with the average kitchen upgrade estimated at £700,000.

The report says that, after the expansion of universal free school meals to P6 and P7, due in August 2022, was delayed by the Scottish Government, investment in projects to cope with the expansion were postponed by the council until timescales and funding were clearer.

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Edinburgh is bidding for around £25 million in capital and revenue funding for dining hall extensions, new kitchens and extra staffing as part of a £250m request by all Scottish local authorities to ensure a sustainable delivery of the scheme.

The report notes a 21 per cent increase in meal numbers across the city compared with the pre-Covid numbers from 2019.

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The catering service provides on average 22,500 meals per day across the city. Photo: Lisa Ferguson.

It says: "The catering service is currently managing the additional demands of P4/5 free school meals relatively well, however, capacity issues as a result of no capital allocation are showing in areas of high population growth such as Gilmerton, Queensferry and Currie.

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"As Covid levels decrease and meal volumes increase, officers expect significant capacity issues in at least six school kitchens.”

And the report said, if a new date for P6 and P7 free meals is set with less than 12 months’ notice, there is little chance of being able to build the necessary new kitchens and dining hall extensions in time.

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The report also warns the expansion of the Scottish Government’s 1140 hours’ free nursery provision will lead to continued additional demand on the catering service.

"Many of these settings will operate for 52 weeks per year, as opposed to the current school staffing model of 38 weeks,” the report says, “The catering service is currently providing about 4,000 meals per day to early years settings.

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"Currently these meals are produced at school production kitchens and transported to nursery settings. There is now a growing need for a central production hub for nursery feeding.”

Five things you didn't know about school meals in Edinburgh

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- The catering service provides on average 22,500 meals per day to primary, special, secondary and nursery pupils across the city.

- The catering service operates from 61 production kitchens serving 36 dining centres and has around 600 council employees.

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- Statutory nutrition standards are calculated to ensure the school lunch provides a third of the daily nutritional requirements for primary and secondary school pupils.

- The process of designing a menu is extremely complex and takes on average six months, ensuring compliance with the nutritional legislation and providing a balanced menu across the week.

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- Products from Scotland and the UK are used where possible. The service uses local suppliers for meat, vegetables and milk. All frozen peas are grown in Scotland.