Cold meals become hot potato
The 21 staff are pursuing legal action in a row over who pays their redundancy money after contracts with two companies providing meals for Essex primary schools were not renewed.
Essex council had negotiated deals with caterers Scolarest and Initial to provide hot meals for 366 primaries. But in 2003 it rejected higher quotes and transferred responsibility for a new deal to individual headteachers.
The move led to at least 75 schools scrapping hot meals, leaving almost 150 staff - some paid less than pound;5 an hour - out of work. Most left voluntarily but 21, represented by Unison, the public-services union, are to sue the two firms, Essex council and individual schools.
Jean Buck, the county's longest-serving meals supervisor, who worked in school kitchens for 27 years, is one of those taking legal action.
"I loved the job and have always cooked," said Mrs Buck, who now works in a shop and bakes wedding cakes in the evenings.
"I think the way we were treated was appalling. It was as if all that time we devoted to the schools accounted for nothing," she added.
Michelle Bradley, Unison's regional officer, said: "These ladies are not well paid for what is a difficult job, and have been ridden over by the council and the catering companies."
Scolarest, which is contesting 20 of the claims, and Initial, which is involved in only one case, deny responsibility for redundancy payments.
They say the council was still their employer, although local authority lawyers will argue the caterers should meet the bill.