Can student enterprise & tech innovation help reduce school food bills?

Lynda Greeves
Contract catering

From teenagers right down to primary-aged children, when it comes to looking after our planet young people are very much leading the way. So should schools & food service operators look to involve students in reducing food wastage?

Schools thrive on continuity and consistency. From staff resource, IT and equipment to heating, electricity and water, schools need the basics to operate reliably and deliver a seamless education to their pupils. When it comes to the contract caterers serving hundreds of hungry children every day, the same is true. Yet school caterers now face a raft of growing challenges. From soaring food costs, and managing waste, to supply chain challenges and product shortages – there is much to consider.

From a cost and environmental perspective food waste in school kitchens is a significant concern... According to the latest research from Wrap, 80,382 tonnes of food is wasted annually by primary and secondary schools in England. This waste not only squanders valuable resources but also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and landfill congestion. In school kitchens, where large quantities of food is being prepared daily, reducing waste is fundamental to creating change around sustainability, controlling costs and improving operational efficiency. By minimising levels of food wastage during meal times, schools can not only save money and make better use of ingredients, but they can also redirect those savings back into educating children or towards investment in facilities.

Environmental education and setting goals around how schools can reduce wastage has been an evolving topic over recent years. From teenagers right down to primary-aged children, when it comes to looking after our planet, young people are very much leading the way. For school communities, there is a palpable sense of responsibility and personal ownership that dominates the corridors – and a mutual understanding that we all have our part to play. Many schools have become designated recycling centres for their local community, while others are innovating with more complex eco-initiatives or growing their own produce on campus. From organising more sustainable events to reducing plastic waste or improving menu planning for school meals to reduce food waste, there are several priorities at stake.

Catering is a fixed cost budget within schools, so the finance team and the school Bursar need a single source of truth when it comes to budgeting and spend. Kitchen management technology like Caternet, that is able to show live pricing across multiple suppliers with live price comparison, will provide a key benefit to school catering teams. This data essentially gives the catering manager complete visibility of the core business and allows them to segregate costs and apportion budgets correctly. If you think about it, staffing is the biggest cost for schools, followed by catering; so, reducing waste and controlling spend on food is pivotal to staying on budget.  

Of course, reducing food wastage in school isn’t just about operating more efficiently and saving money. Schools should also expect to have to justify their approaches and their actions to students – they need to be answering questions like ‘Why are we using plastic packaging here?’, ‘Is our produce sourced locally?’, ‘How much do we grow onsite?’, ‘Are these ingredients Fair Trade?’ Why is there only one plant-based option in the lunch hall today?’  Most students will look to their school to ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to saving the planet. As such, schools should also expect their young people to want to get involved in food wastage policies, to actively campaign for change, to ask their school to stand up and be counted on important issues; and to provide the evidence to boot.

This is where the role of procurement and catering management technology comes into its own. As well as accurate forecasting, schools will be able to analyse historic data around meal provision and predict demand and potential wastage more accurately. For instance, they can adjust purchasing quantities and plan menus based on available ingredients, while avoiding excessive portions and minimising overstocking. School catering teams can also automate their inventory management, monitor stock levels and streamline the purchasing process – this can also help schools to make more timely use of food items with a shorter shelf life to avoid spoilage. Real time information on stock levels and access to live supplier prices will also improve supply chain relationships and highlight potential food shortages.

Perhaps most importantly, technology can help schools to identify surplus food that could be donated to local charities or redistributed within the wider school community – something that is not only an effective waste reduction strategy, but also visibly promotes a greater level of social responsibility that enterprising students can also get involved in. Embracing advances in technology that supports the reduction of waste and a more sustainable future, sets the right example for young people, instilling the values of environmental responsibility and waste consumption from an early age.

Join our live webinar - Wednesday 29th November!

If you're a food service provider to the education sector, do join us for our upcoming webinar in collaboration with EP Hospitality: ‘What is the future of food service in schools?’ on 29th November. Together with our special guests, we’ll be addressing everything from food waste though to maximising the benefits of technology. Be part of the conversation - find out more and sign up here.