E-procurement: feeding better outcomes for education catering

From leadership meetings to open days, parent events, and more, catering operations can generate unforeseen costs…

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 efficiently to deliver a seamless education to their pupils. When it comes to the catering departments serving hundreds of children every day, the same is true.  The impact of the pandemic, however, has seen to it that many of the processes and systems catering teams had previously taken for granted are now more difficult to manage. The knock-on effect of the pandemic has brought with it a raft of supply chain challenges and an obvious impact to the availability of food; add to this the growing shortage of delivery drivers and catering in school is no easy feat.

Catering itself is a fixed cost budget within schools, so the finance team and the school Bursar need to be aware of any unforeseen problems or potential cost issues. Communication is key here and many schools are currently in a position where they need to operate as cost-effectively as possible and avoid overspend. The supply chain itself can be a bottleneck for exceeding budgets, especially when many schools will want to buy locally and support their community, even though they may be paying over the odds for food items. Technology is evolving today to support schools with their budgeting and to ensure they have access to the best prices and quality of goods.

Controlling spend

Being able to substitute supplier products after you have shopped (just as you might with a regular grocery shop) to save money would be a blessing, especially over the course of a year when those small savings really add up. Interestingly though, the ability to swap from product to product easily has perhaps never been so relevant as it is now, given the supply chain issues the sector faces. Yet newer technologies are allowing schools to do just this – to compare supplier prices against each other so that school catering teams are better informed about what they are spending and whether or not that rate is competitive. The decision on quality of items will always rest with the catering manager or chef in terms of taste tests and checking quality during delivery. Of course, the bigger the purchasing list, the more difficult it can be to manage substitutes.

E-procurement technologies that are able to show live pricing across multiple suppliers with live price comparison will provide a key benefit to school catering departments. This essentially gives the catering manager visibility of the core business and allows them to segregate costs and apportion budgets correctly, which is key in avoiding overspend. If you think about it, labour (staffing) is the biggest cost for schools, followed by catering, so controlling spend on food is pivotal to staying on budget. Food costs go up and down, sometimes erratically, especially when there are seasonal changes, or issues with product demand vs. availability. Scenarios such as Brexit, delivery driver shortages, COVID-19 and even severe weather conditions which impact harvests can create unforeseen circumstances that can affect the supply chain.

The supply chain can be volatile, but it can often be other, less obvious implications that create havoc. Impacts on consumer buying habits in supermarkets can also have a knock-on effect on school catering services. This was evident more recently with the issue around flour supply due to an increase in consumers home baking – it meant schools had to adapt recipes and menus accordingly. This is another area where fit for purpose technology can help; giving schools the ability to adapt menus and recipes in line with current supply chain restrictions can be hugely helpful for schools in navigating change quickly.

This is another area where fit for purpose technology can help; giving schools the ability to adapt menus and recipes in line with current supply chain restrictions can be hugely helpful for schools in navigating change quickly

Managing costs is never straight forward for school catering, especially when you have multiple people within the team who could be ordering goods. It is of course the responsibility of department heads to manage budgets, but it’s important for the team to have transparency over what items they need rather than what they ‘think’ they need. This kind of estimation is likely to lead to over-ordering and hence, overspend. Traditionally, every internal function/spend would have to go via the Bursar for pre-approval but today, technology is making it easier to set spending limits for individual staff and to raise an alert if a member of the team is about to exceed a budget.

Staying on top of allergens and nutrition

Nutrition and diet is another area where schools are using technology to adapt to student demands, medical/health requirements and lifestyle choices; from veganism and vegetarianism to dietary requirements, allergies and intolerances, schools have to be a step ahead of the game when managing what students are eating. This can of course be a minefield for catering teams and chefs.  Product availability such as gluten free flour, for instance, has been a challenge recently with a multitude of supply issues and where a substitute or regular flour just isn’t possible. But products such as pastries and snacks that are suitable for a gluten free diet are improving all of the time, and it’s now possible to buy in a good range of these items from mainstream suppliers.

Most schools have a nut and sesame free policy to provide reassurance to pupils and parents, and many schools are aiming for allergen free menus in the future. Menu software can be very helpful in omitting specific or all allergens in recipes, and this kind of technology will be key for the future in adapting menu planning.

Menu software can be very helpful in omitting specific or all allergens in recipes, and this kind of technology will be key for the future in adapting menu planning

Many schools operate with photo ID of the student held on a school system which lists any allergies or intolerances. These are usually stored in a central location within the school kitchen so that catering staff have access to it. Signage is key too, and should be situated in the facilities directing students to approach staff if they have allergies. Schools that are operating with EPoS systems can also go one step further and link their dining menus with student payment cards so it can raise an alert when the goods being sold conflict with an allergy of the student purchasing the meal.

Mindful tech

With Natasha’s Law also on the horizon, meaning the law on allergen labelling for pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) foods will change, many schools are buying in items they used to make themselves such as sandwiches, baguettes, yoghurt and fruit pots etc. to reduce the need to produce labels and mitigate risk. Automatic labelling technology systems that print the allergens onto the label is a key defence tool and many systems allow you to link that to your menu publishing and recipe systems too. In fairness, schools have been preparing for this over the last 12 months so that they’re ready for the new academic year. The next couple of months is really all about training and fine-tuning the catering processes.

Thankfully we are at a stage where technology can really help with supply chain communications, price comparison, internal team comms, recipe and menu planning, allergens management and also avoiding overspend and staying on budget. E-procurement systems help by ensuring that budget holders are more mindful of spend by delivering greater transparency across the catering department, the data of which can be used as a point of reference for discussion in the future. Stock taking itself has always been a big time drain for catering teams and with human intervention, it’s rarely accurate. Using technology to take control of inventory management and ensure that any purchases made link directly with that system removes the labour drain on resources and reduce the risk of errors in the future.


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