School meals like no other

Hampshire County Council Catering Services (HC3S) has a mission to provide the children of Hampshire with nutritious meals, and inspire enthusiasm for the benefits of healthy eating

Encouraging the development of balanced diet habits from an early age is crucial for healthy growth throughout childhood and adolescence. Therefore, when the time comes for children to start school, parents need to think carefully whether they are willing to let their offspring have a school meal. It then falls on the shoulders of catering providers to make it easy for them to take the decision by guaranteeing uncompromising quality of the food that is served in schools.

Hampshire is one of the counties in the UK that can be proud of the way it takes care of the dietary needs of its youngest citizens. The Hampshire County Council Catering Service (HC3S) is a council-run catering organisation operating on business grounds, which prepares and provides freshly-cooked and nutritious meals from scratch to some 450 schools across the southern county.

“We cook around about 65,000 school meals per day, which makes just over 12 million per year, and we cater for 18 secondary and 432 primary schools in Hampshire,” County Councillor, Stephen Reid, points out. “What is more, we also manage the medically-registered special diets of over 2400 primary school children all over the county.

“It is an interesting marketplace to be in. Our support is most valuable to primary schools, who are generally smaller entities and, therefore, less able to go out to tender for themselves. Secondary schools, in contrast, are large enough to look at alternatives,” Stephen explains. “It bears mentioning that we do not restrict ourselves only to schools, but we also provide catering services at some County Council-run venues, and support special occasions such as civic events.”

Peace of mind
In Stephen’s view, the quality of the meals HC3S serves is what distinguishes the organisation and instils confidence in the community. “We are very well-known for prioritising and working with local farmers and suppliers. We aim to source fresh ingredients from local suppliers as much as we can, so that we are able to prove their provenance and give parents peace of mind that their child will consume a meal made of fresh products that meet the highest quality standards.”

As a responsible catering provider, HC3S also has a tradition of engaging with the public beyond the mere serving of a meal. For instance, the company became the first of its kind to partner with Seafish UK, as it looks to improve pupils’ perception of seafood and encourage them to eat more of it. For this initiative, it was presented with the Marketing Award at the EDUcatering Excellence Awards.

“This was one of the two awards we won at the ceremony, the other being for Primary School Caterer of the Year,” Stephen proudly shares with us the news of HC3S’s recent accolades. “We enjoyed a remarkable success at the Foodservice Cateys awards where we picked up the win in another two categories – for Education Caterer of the Year and for Innovation.

“We were singled out for demonstrating innovation, good value, and performance throughout the year to secure the Education Caterer of the Year award and I think we were marked high particularly for forging collaborative and innovative projects with our partners and local suppliers,” he continues. “As regards the Innovation Award, it was our activity on social media that drew the jury’s attention. We have created a Facebook page that is currently being followed by over 7000 users, which is more than the followers of all other school caterers put together. We recognised the importance of setting up a presence on social media some time ago and we view online communication with customers as an integral part of our customer relationship management strategy.”

Extended base
Going forward, Stephen anticipates cost pressures to have an impact on HC3S’s operations and on the catering market as a whole. “With the national living wage going up, there will be challenges for us and we will have to consider how we respond to those. It is also unclear what the relationship between the UK and EU will be in the wake of the transition period after Brexit and how this will affect food prices. At the moment, our priority is to perform a detailed business review, in order to handle the immediate pressures that are facing us.”

Another way for HC3S to deal with the changes in the marketplace is through extending its customer base. While the company is proudly Hampshire and there is no greater source of satisfaction for it than serving the children of the county, make no mistake about it – HC3S is no less enthusiastic about taking its meals out of Hampshire and into other regions.

“We already provide services to 42 schools in Wiltshire, Dorset, Portsmouth, and Southampton, as well as to a sixth form college in Salisbury. It has to be said that we are always open to taking new clients on board from either Hampshire or elsewhere, because the more areas we serve, the better we will be able to deliver 39the economies of scale that make us a competitive force within the sector,” Stephen concludes.