Kitchen staff asked to stock up on food as labour shortages impact school meals

School catering staff are concerned products are becoming scarce as prices rise, they explain to ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills

One of the UK’s largest canteen suppliers has written to its school catering staff and advised them to stock up on food as part of contingency plans to make sure children are properly fed through the winter.

ISS has told the 450 schools it cooks meals for that it is having issues with the “sourcing, packing and distribution” of food supplies and that “the problem will get worse and is likely to continue until at least February”.

The company says school menus are being impacted by a shortage of lorry drivers, a lack of staff and import delays.

In an email seen by ITV News, staff in ISS school kitchens have been urged to “top up on long life, dried, tinned and frozen products to ensure that there will always be some form of food available in a worse case scenario.”

Schools are advised that ISS “is confident that their supply team will be able to provide product throughout” but that menus may be changed at short notice.

The email, which was sent a week ago, says that fish-fingers have not been available recently and explains that the “fallback” option for children is jacket potatoes, which ISS says it is not having issues sourcing.

A slide deck presentation, prepared by the company, lists tinned fruit, mayonnaise, soft drinks, fresh yoghurt, margarine, bread and ham as some of the products there are shortages of.

It advises catering teams to:

  • Place orders a week in advance

  • Remove sandwich options from menus (due to a shortage of bread)

  • Postpone promotions (except on Census Day and Christmas)

  • Remove “unnecessary” frozen items from the menu like “baguettes, frozen veg, ice cream and frozen yoghurt” to allow space for extra storage.

Kitchen staff are asked to “increase in-unit stock holding so all schools are carrying a minimum of two weeks stock - at least through to the end of the year”.

Those with extra storage capacity are advised to “stockpile staple items”.

Which areas are being impacted? ITV News's Joel Hills explains

A spokesperson for ISS told ITV News: “Our priority is always the schools, and the children, whose meals we provide.

"We would like to reassure parents and carers that our ability to continue to provide nutritious school meals is not being impacted by the well-publicised shortages of items that the UK is currently experiencing.

"Naturally, we have contingency plans in place to ensure that a good supply of meals remains in place. That contingency planning includes regular communication with our stakeholders during these challenging times for many schools across the country.”

LACA, which represents catering managers in local authorities as well as private contractors for primary and secondary schools, wouldn’t tell us what proportion of its members are suffering supply shortage or have implemented contingency plans.

The chair, Jacquie Blake, told ITV News: “There is no doubt that we are facing challenging times.

"Our food suppliers are under intense pressure, and our members are working hard to ensure that contingency plans are in place. Ensuring that children get a hot healthy school lunch has been and always will be our members number one priority. We are monitoring the situation carefully.”

BidFood, one of the UK’s largest food wholesalers, which delivers to schools, told ITV News they are experiencing “significant pressures across the supply chain, including shortages from manufacturers and challenges with HGV driver recruitment, which in turn is impacting our ability to deliver our usual levels of service out of a portion of our depots”.

The company blames the disruption on Brexit and the pandemic.

It adds: “The past 18 months have, and continue to be, extremely challenging for the industry and our teams are working around the clock to put in place measures to get deliveries out to customers”.

Businesses have been warning the government that a shortage of lorry drivers has been hampering deliveries for several months.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, says feedback from the party’s network of 2,400 local councillors suggests that food supply problems are widespread in schools.

He accused the government of failing to respond with enough urgency to a situation which had been repeatedly highlighted.

“They were warned [about labour shortages] months ago, they didn’t plan, they just don’t care.” Davy told ITV News. 

“In government, Liberal Democrats delivered on free school meals, this government, through incompetence and carelessness is snatching them away. For too many children this is their one hot meal a day.

From a lack of drivers to the petrol crisis, all paths lead back to Boris Johnson and his failure of leadership”. 

The Department for Education is responsible for 21,000 schools in England. 1.7 million school children in England receive free school meals.

This morning, the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told ITV News he wasn’t aware that any canteen providers had asked schools to stockpile food and said he intended to contact ISS to establish what their concerns are.

  • Nadhim Zahawi said it was "news to him" that schools were being asked to stockpile

Mr Zahawi, who has only been in post for a few weeks, denied that the government has been slow to react to the lack of HGV drivers.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "There is no evidence to suggest widespread supply issues. Schools have flexibility under the School Food Standards to substitute food products if particular ingredients or meals are not readily available.

“We routinely consider contingency arrangements and expect schools and catering companies supplying them to do the same.

“In the event of any disruption to supply, we will work with councils and the sector to ensure warm, nutritious meals can continue to be provided.”

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “The government has been warned about driver shortages and the risk to supply chains for months, but they have failed to prepare and children are again being left to bear the brunt of this Conservatives chaos.

“The prime minister’s speech shows they’re burying their heads in the sand while families are faced with empty shelves and petrol pumps running dry.

“A plan to recruit and train more drivers now is urgently needed or this chaos will continue. No school must be left without the food supplies it needs, and no child left going hungry."