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.
The Catering Mark’s focus on nutrition, freshness, traceability, sustainability and animal welfare fits well alongside consumers’ increasing interest in food traceability and sustainability.
The award, was originally born out of the Food for Life programme, an ethos which schools were first to adopt, as it came at a time when the school food standards were changing. Since launching however the Catering Mark is now widely used by caterers across all sectors, from healthcare and workplaces to care homes and other public and private sector organisations; all of which wish to receive independent recognition of their stance and delivery of ethically sourced and sustainable foods.
In this article I talk to three customers from three different types of organisations: an NHS Trust, a Local Authority and an Academy Trust, all of which decided to adapt their food offering to meet their customers’ needs as well as to receive the independent seal of approval. I wanted to find out: What the Catering Mark means to them? Is it just a tick box exercise? What are the true benefits? What challenges have they had to overcome in meeting the criteria? And, what advice can they give to others looking to embark on achieving the standard?
Robert Cormack, Group Catering Manager (Essentia Operations), Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and Evelina Children’s Hospital, which are part of the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, are two of London’s most famous teaching hospitals, providing patients with excellent treatment and care from central London sites near Waterloo and London Bridge.
With a focus on improving the whole patient experience across the entire organisation, the Trust’s Group Catering Manager, Robert Cormack, put a goal in place to achieve the Bronze level Catering Mark in 2016.
Robert explains: “The main driver for me in my role, on behalf of the Trust, is to continually improve the food experience for anyone that uses our facilities. The Trust is focused on improving the whole patient experience, and food is very much a part of that.
I also read about how Government is looking to implement further food standards into healthcare in five to eight years’ time, so I wanted to get ahead of the game. I work for an extremely prestigious Trust and believe it is vital to demonstrate the focus we have on quality: the Catering Mark delivers impartial recognition of this.
So I started to focus on working towards the Bronze certification. My first step was to gather all the information to see where any shortfalls or gaps were, so changes could be made. Working with our procurement partner Pelican, a review of all menus took place to identify which products needed to switch while at the same time reviewing the pricing to try and negate any increases in expenditure.
The biggest challenge for us is to ensure that any changes made to our purchasing does not increase spend and so this needed to be factored in. As an example, we had worked with a sandwich supplier for many years, which provided very good quality sandwiches, however they did not offer a Farm Assured range. So Pelican managed a tender bid for us, which included tasting, sampling and reviewing packaging, and we were able to identify an alternative supplier, who was not only farm assured and of the same quality, but in fact also delivered us a financial saving.
Once we agreed all the suppliers and products we were going to use, we then had to gather all the evidence and certification i.e. all the proof-points required by the Soil Association as part of the Catering Mark inspection process.
We already cooked a lot of our recipes from fresh, which is one of the requirements, so we had a good platform to work from. The process towards achieving the Bronze standard is very worthwhile as it gives you an opportunity to review current practices and make adjustments where needed.
Following the inspection, we were awarded the Bronze in July 2016. Everybody at Guys’ & St Thomas’s were thrilled, as having this awards opens up new opportunities for the Trust. We have a production kitchen here and by achieving the Catering Mark it enables us to also look at external trade opportunities, which is a new element for us. For example, Serco has won a bid with Barts Hospital and, because we have the Bronze standard in place, we are eligible to supply the food to Barts. A contract agreement has since been approved and we now supply an extra 4,500 meals a day to Barts as a result!
All of our menus now carry information relating to the Food For Life Catering Mark, demonstrating the Trust’s focus on sustainability, welfare and ethically sourced products. It’s been a great journey – very worthwhile; our staff are proud of what we have achieved and enjoy passing the details on to patients and visitors. It really shows that, as an organisation, we do care and that we put patients first.
I’m interested in now seeing whether the Silver standard is viable for us. The only potential barrier is the financial cost pressure, however I’m talking to the team at Pelican to see whether it is feasible. We need to be realistic of course, as the volumes and quality standards we work to may not make this possible, however Pelican has been instrumental in helping us achieve the right quality of service and products, at the right prices to date, and so it is worth exploring what is possible for the future.”
Mark Capper, Surrey County Council – Surrey Commercial Services
Surrey County Council was one of the first local authorities to achieve the Soil Association’s Catering Mark back in March 2012 for the food it serves in all 283 primary schools across the county. Initially it achieved the Bronze level, however through much hard work and dedication, it was awarded the Gold standard in 2015 and has maintained the Gold level for two consecutive years!
Not only does the Catering Mark support the government’s agenda relating to healthy, ethical food but it also supports the council’s agenda and fits in with its overall corporate plan.
Explains Mark Capper, Surrey Commercial Services: “For us, the Catering Mark provides a great deal of reassurance to our customers and parents that we are committed to sourcing produce that is fresh, local, ethical and, wherever possible, organic in all of our primary schools across Surrey. Not only that, it supports the healthy eating agenda and we also have the evidence that good food provision is better for improved attainment.
This is no mean feat when you look at some of the numbers involved. Over 55,000 meals are produced every day: that’s 10.5 million meals every year! Break this down further and this includes over 64,000 litres of yoghurt, which comes from a dairy farmer in Worthing, over half a million free range eggs all of which were laid in Surrey. Over 139,000 litres of organic semi skimmed milk comes from a dairy in Devon, 94 tonnes of flour is sourced from a mill in Essex, and meanwhile 26,500 tonnes of Red Tractor Cheddar cheese is also procured, as well as40,000 tonnes of organic pork and 35,000 tonnes of organic beef.
At this moment in time, 80% of our fresh produce is sourced in the UK which we are very proud of. And, when you take into account the scale of our procurement, sourcing local means it has a significant impact on local economies which is hugely gratifying. We bake bread from scratch in all schools, every day, and have been ahead of the game when it comes to adapting our menus to meet the food-based standards, way ahead of the requirements in force.
When it comes to documenting evidence for the Catering Mark, sourcing suppliers and products, and delivering nutritional guidance, we had support from Pelican, another Surrey-based company that works in partnership with the local authority on its catering procurement.
Pelican helps us collate all the evidence, certifications such as what has been spent with each supplier, as well as summarise which products are farm assured, organic, where they originated from or otherwise. Their support in this auditing process is invaluable. They have the knowledge, technology and relationship with suppliers of all sizes to make the process far easier for the wider team and me.
We are constantly looking for new ways to improve our offering: For example, we are now looking at sourcing more organic produce – and Pelican is helping us to find a local supplier for minced beef. We have introduced ‘Meat-Free Mondays’ in our primary schools that support a Food for Life good practice point towards reducing the meat protein that we consume.
We are also improving our marketing with the help of Pelican, we are now displaying food boards and posters in the dining rooms, so children can really learn about where their food comes from as so many are unaware.
In addition we offer advice to others and we’re championing local providers where possible. Ofsted will soon start to monitor school food and the relationship between schools, food and community engagement – so we’re already on the case with local growing clubs, or group cooking with pupils and where parents or grandparents come in and taste the meals produced.
From Surrey Commercial Services point of view, the Catering Mark is not just a tick-box exercise but it is embedded in the entire ethos and values of the organisation. For us, the Catering Mark offers the highest external quality assurance, which is independently audited, and demonstrates our commitment to our students, the local economies, producers, farmers and supply chain in general. It gives me a great feeling to know that we are making a real, valuable difference.”
SCHOOL ACADEMY TRUST
Suzanne Martin, Catering Manager, STEP Academy Trust
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.
To find out more about the Catering Mark, and how Pelican can help your business – please contact Anna-Maria Holt BSc Hons. RD, member of British Dietetic Association and Company Dietitian at Pelican Procurement Services on 01252 705200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org