Linking local schools with local food

17/03/2009 - 00:00
Local Food Links is the first caterer in the country to achieve the Food for Life Gold Mark.

The caterer exceeds the Food for Life Catering Gold Mark criteria by serving 100% freshly prepared, 59% locally sourced ingredients and 41% organic ingredients. Tim Crabtree from Local Food Links explains more about the work that goes on. Why did you decide to go for the Food for Life Catering Mark? Local food Links was created because the schools we work with decided to opt out of a central contract which would have provided them with ready-meals made in Nottingham and then trucked down 212 miles to Bridport in Dorset to be reheated - there would be no local or organic ingredients in these meals. Right from the start we wanted to work with the schools to design a school meals service, which had the very best ingredients and a good proportion of local and organic ingredients, so for us the Food for Life Catering Mark was a logical fit for us. Where do you source your local and organic ingredients? Do you work with any interesting suppliers? Many of our suppliers are cooperatives. So for example, we use Somerset Organic Link and we're quite a good fit for them because they have the volume we need and we can help them when they have a glut of something. There is also a meat-cooperative in Dorset, we have been fortunate to work with, and a workers co-op, Essential Trading, which supplies dried goods such as pulses, grains and herbs. Have you faced any challenges? Yes, there have been challenges. With regards to suppliers it is partly an issue about getting consistent suppliers that can supply the kind of volumes you require. The second thing is, can you get the quality of food you're looking for at a good price? We started as a pilot project just producing soup one day a week and now three years on, we are producing 3,000 meals per week and that is going to continue to rise. We are about to open a new kitchen in North Dorset, in partnership with eight primary schools, and expect to produce a further 2,500 meals per day. We have been fortunate to have some funding support from a range of sources, and this means we have had the time to look out for suppliers who can meet our requirements. We have been able to develop really close relationships with our suppliers, but clearly this is an issue for caterers who haven't had that time. They'll therefore just ring a food service company that will deliver them everything. We recognise we have been lucky. We do aim to be operating without grants within the next two years by operating at a bigger scale than we originally envisaged. We are for example exploring diversifying into working with old people's organisations such as care homes, day centres and lunch clubs to provide meals – this will increase the scale of the operation so that the overhead costs can be covered. We sell our school meals at £1.80-£2 and the margin on that really is tiny, so it is a challenge making it work financially if we were just to make school meals. However, it is also worth saying that there has been this trend over the last 30 years of contracting out catering in schools to private providers, who are seeking a 40% profit on school food and if you set up a not-for-profit service that is not extracting that profit, then all of that can be re-directed into better quality ingredients.
We just can't get away from the fact that if you are trying to make too much money out of the meals then the quality of the ingredients will suffer and one of the main reasons we have been able to use these very high quality ingredients is because we're not taking a profit out of the system. Do you and your team enjoy cooking with seasonal, local and organic ingredients? Definitely. I think for all the staff we have in the kitchen one of the big draws of working with us was the fact that they would be using the best, fresh ingredients. Many of them have been working in other schools where the quality of ingredients have been appalling with frozen this and pre-prepared that.
So the quality of the ingredients and cooking fr

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