Tender bids have raised the catering stakes

30th March 2007 at 01:00
The staff call it "mystery meat". It's pink like gammon, smoked like gammon and tastes like gammon. But it's poultry-based. We try not to think about it. Mystery meat is a factor in our decision to put out to tender (no pun intended) the new catering contract in the school kitchen.

The contract specifications are sent out and we receive three bids. Each firm will wow us with a 30-minute presentation to the governors' finance committee.

The presentation room is arranged like the set of The X Factor. The committee members are the judges, anxious to get their teeth into samples of food and a tasty financial package. I cast myself as Simon Cowell and the chair of governors as Sharon Osbourne. The first act is our current caterers. They don't turn up. It's par for the course. Their mystery-meat goose is well and truly cooked. Next up is a bumbling pair, with a stuttering patter of cheesy cliches. Their philosophy is healthy, freshly prepared food, locally sourced. Farm-to-fork traceability. It sounds a bit forensic. Their samples are dull but realistic - diced beetroot, greying lettuce that's been in the car overnight, processed ham triangles and boiled eggs that lend a sulphurous odour to their already flatulent presentation. I ask how they cater for food allergies. No problem.

Vegetarians? No problem. Halal meat? No problem. They are too eager to please and I consider testing them with a request for horsemeat from our French teacher.

The final presentation is very slick. They have a glossy brochure. A photograph of asparagus on the front cover suggests Michelin-star cookery that our pupils would find hard to swallow. They serve samples of cranberry shortbread dusted with crushed pumpkin seeds, iced carrot cake and delicious strawberry smoothies. It's impressive and I won't need lunch.

In true MasterChef style, the committee deliberates, cogitates and digests the facts, figures and remaining samples. Food quality, nutritional content, value for money, range of menu, portion control, health and safety, staff training. All the ingredients must be there. The committee chews it over. It's a knife-edge decision.

We decide it is too much of a hot potato to get wrong and agree to "do lunch" at schools catered for by the two remaining contenders. First, we visit the bidders with the slick presentation and the impressive samples.

The area manager lets slip how much they are charging the school we are visiting. It's much less than the offer to us. We scrutinise the three-week rolling menu - no cranberry shortbread, no carrot cake, no smoothies. We feel duped, done up like kippers. I grill the area manager. He has a lame excuse and egg all over his face.

At school number two, the pupils know the area manager. The cook is more upbeat than Jamie Oliver. The menu is good value for money and free of mystery meat. I tuck into apple pie and realise I am eating the proof of the pudding.

Colin Dowland is the acting head of a large junior school in north London

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