Naked Chef frozen out

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Clackmannanshire is boldly going where no local authority has gone before, with the introduction of food regeneration in schools.

From the beginning of the new term, the authority's 19 primary schools will be supplied with lunchtime meals from a centralised kitchen. By Christmas, its three secondary schools will also be taking part, with between 2,500 and 3,000 meals served a day.

In what appears to be a direct conflict with the national campaign led by Jamie Oliver for freshly cooked food in schools, the new system will see all meals prepared and cooked at the high-tech plant in Sauchie before being blast dried and delivered to freezer units at each school. Salads will continue to be produced in the schools, but sandwiches and rolls will come from Sauchie.

Scotland's smallest authority has invested pound;1.1 million in the new kitchen, which it hopes will attract private customers.

"The meals are prepared and cooked in the usual way and then blast frozen within 90 minutes," Bruce Geary, service manager for catering, buildings and cleaning in Clackmannanshire, said. "They are then regenerated at the school."

Regeneration consists of reheating the food in a hot oven straight from frozen. This is done on a daily basis, following a centralised four-week menu. It takes a minimum of 1.15 hours to heat the meal, which is then probed to ensure it reaches 83 degrees before being transferred into a warm dish and served.

The minimum temperature level is 63 degrees, but Mr Geary said the food will never get that cool before serving is finished.

All schools will have the same standardised menu, with food supplied fortnightly in multi-portion packs, labelled and dated, and with instructions on reheating. Secondary schools will continue to produce some meals on site, but the dish of the day will come from the centralised kitchen.

Food will be served to pupils in earthenware dishes. Mr Geary said parents had found it difficult to accept "that we wouldn't be providing meals in plastic trays straight from the microwave".

Clackmannanshire believes that a centralised unit will allow it to control standards of provision, with every menu checked against nutritional lists.

Despite the calls by the Naked Chef to decentralise food preparation for children, nutritional experts say blast freezing can be better. "Fast freezing does not alter the nutritional composition of meals although it may change the texture of certain foods," Angela Craigie, nutritionist at the Centre for Applied Nutrition at Dundee University, said. "It has advantages over chilling food or keeping it warm for transportation, as it is in the heating process that degeneration can happen."

Much of Clackmannanshire's investment has gone on developing satellite units within schools, with large freezers, regeneration ovens and serving counters.

Mr Geary said centralising the service had also produced savings.

"Suppliers are able to reflect that saving in their prices as they are no longer delivering to different destinations."

However, the reorganisation has meant staff cuts, with many of the school-based head cooks facing redundancy or early retirement. Other staff have had their working hours reduced.

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