The institutional catering trade as we go ‘Back to School’: recovering volumes but concerned about the economic situation

By Ana Turón, Head of Collective Catering and of the Collective Catering Congress

The holidays are over and September comes round as always with kids heading ‘Back to School’. For the institutional catering trade this is a key moment in the year. Inflation, the supply crisis and the de-indexation law keep the sector tightly constrained and with little room for manoeuvre; On the other hand, if we talk about quality we see that there has been a significant and positive evolution. Finally, more efficient equipment and digitalisation tailored to all business areas have come to stay and help the economic and environmental sustainability of these services.

According to data from Food Service Spain (FSE), the education segment accounts for 34% of the total turnover of the institutional catering sector, behind the social welfare and healthcare segment, which accounts for 43%.

It is undoubtedly a key segment, not only because of what it means economically, but also because of the importance of the school canteen as a service so that all children, especially those in the most vulnerable family situations, have access to a varied, healthy and complete diet.

As the 23-24 school year has just begun, we spoke with María López, spokesperson for Food Service Spain, and with Gemma Salvador, a dietitian and nutritionist of the Health Promotion Department of the Catalan Public Health Agency, to learn how things are shaping up this year and the current situation of services in school canteens, both qualitatively and economically speaking.

Return to pre-pandemic levels

As for the number of diners, this school year begins with a full recovery of pre-pandemic figures when adjusted for the low birth rate. As María López says, “there are schools that have had to close lines, but beyond this fact of life that we cannot change, we have recovered pre-pandemic levels and what we are focusing on now is to see how to attract older students to the school canteen”.

It is usual that from the age of 14 students no longer want to stay to eat at school. As Maria explains, they see the school canteen as a “space for small children.” From 3rd year of ESO [Compulsory Secondary Education in Spain] the rate of students who stay to eat in schools and colleges drops to 10-15%. “In this regard, one of the major trends is to attempt to create differentiated spaces for the older students. More appealing canteens that approach the concept of the university cafeteria. A change that is not just cosmetic, but also gastronomic, with menus to suit the age and tastes of young people, varied and prepared with the same ingredients as the ‘usual menu’ but presented in a different way.”

In another aspect, Gemma Salvador also highlights the importance of ensuring that the student body has access to healthy food provided in an educational setting (both in schools with an intensive timetable and a split one); “this is a matter of especial importance between the ages of 12 and 16 and in environments of high socio-economic vulnerability.”

As for the quality of school menus, Gemma thinks developments in recent years have been positive. “These indicators show that the nutritional recommendations made by the public authorities are being fulfilled year on year.” She also highlights the greater number of schools offering special menus in view of health needs or for ethical or religious reasons. Despite this, she stresses that “”we must continue to insist on improvement, especially with regard to the daily presence of vegetables, fresh fruit for desserts, increase the presence of legumes in first and second courses, the use of olive oil for cooking and dressing, use of iodised salt and inclusion of wholemeal varieties of bread, pasta, rice, etc.”.

Financially critical situation due to inflation and the supply crisis

Beyond the qualitative aspects of the service for which, in general, the industry can boast of the evolution, there is the economic issue, especially critical in the last three years. The major blow caused by the pandemic has been followed by sustained inflation with a more than considerable increase in food prices. As María López explains “economically the situation is still critical. In the months of May and June the companies review the prices but we cannot pass on in any way the cost of the increase in the raw materials. We must also bear in mind that the largest increases are occurring in staple foods such as oil, potatoes or cereals.”

It is clear that one of the main challenges for those responsible for these services is to be able to manage the significant pressure on costs, taking into account, in addition, that most depend on public tenders or contracts that are closed on an annual basis. In this regard, as explained by the FSE spokeswoman, it is vital for the industry that the deindexation law be scrapped (a law that prevents the review of the prices stipulated in public service contracts, even in exceptional situations such as the current hike in inflation that Spain is going through). “Both employers and the CEOE, of which Food Service Spain is a member, are trying to work in that direction, but in the short term we do not see that the problem can be solved.”

In Madrid, for example, prices have not been touched in nine years; the specifications of this school year include an increase of 13% but, as López confirms, “it is not enough; wages and salaries alone, in those nine years, have increased by 28.6%. There are companies that depended 100% on services in state-funded schools and have had to close due to their absolute unviability. The industry’s economic sustainability is really in jeopardy.”

Finally, one must not forget that the supply crisis (war, drought …) is also affecting the sector and weakening its negotiating power. In this regard, it is important to highlight the importance of working closely with suppliers and developing RDI issues, in relation to new products (for example in the development of high quality preformed fish that already comes clean and with the right textures… A good solution that, in addition, would avoid food waste, as harmful to the profitability of companies as to the planet).

Monitoring: precarious employment while at the same time a key element

Despite the crisis, from FSE there is talk that “this year we are seeing more reasonable specifications and in terms of the increase in wage costs it is also more controlled”. Regarding workers of both sexes, the biggest problem in the industry, as confirmed by María López, is absenteeism (sick leave, absences …) and is mainly due to the fact that 80% of the days are only two, three or three and a half hours a day (monitors and support staff … In the kitchen the working days are usually six or eight hours).

It should be noted, however, that this ’employment precarity’ of the monitors is not really proportional to their role. “Their role is key,” says Gemma Salvador; It is important to support children in the forming healthy and sustainable hygiene and food habits. The fact of respecting the little one’s feeling of hunger – and that is the monitor’s role -, encourages a good relationship with food and the act of eating. Their role in promoting autonomy and the social aspects of coexistence is also important; and to encourage and promote the participation of girls and boys in the overall activities of the canteen”.

Environmental sustainability

Another key aspect when talking about school canteens is environmental sustainability. The type and amount of food consumed; how it is produced and distributed, and the amount that is wasted is decisive in human health and the sustainability of the planet.

As explained by the head of the Health Promotion Department of the Government of Catalonia, “given the large number of children who dine in schools (approximately 45% of students) and teaching staff, we must take into account the relative importance that these services can have in relation to the environmental effects of food”.

As an example, Salvador comments that there are recent studies where the environmental impact of a school menu has been calculated that follows the recommendations of increasing the presence of protein foods of vegetable origin (legumes) and decreasing those of animal origin (meat, fish and eggs). The result: a 40% decrease in carbon footprint, 36% of water footprint and 38% of land use has been observed.

Equipment and digitalisation

Finally, we cannot close this article without highlighting the role played by equipment and digitalisation to help achieve both the economic and environmental sustainability of the industry, as well as to guarantee food quality and comply with all the demanding regulations applicable to institutional catering.

The use of certain particularly efficient equipment can be key to the profitability of these services. From the large installations of central kitchens to the isotherms of the distribution of menus and to the kitchen equipment of the schools themselves, everything affects the bottom line, quality and safety … and also on the way to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which are ever-present in school canteen services.

For years, technology and digitalisation have gone hand in hand to help professionals in various aspects but now, with the explosion of AI development, the future is already present.

Beyond the connection and digital control of kitchen equipment, with the considerable savings of time and money involved, it is important to value digitalisation in many other fields such as menu design and food traceability, production management, schedule management, predictive maintenance of facilities, data analysis, etc. The implementation of processes that adapt the tools and objectives of companies to an already digitalised world is something for which there is no turning back.