ACT school canteens are under threat. Photo: Anita Jones
The ACT opposition has called for urgent action to save Canberra's school canteens, saying the government should bring forward a promised $1 million rescue that is not budgeted to start until next year.
The ACT Council for Parents and Citizens Associations has warned that more canteens were bound to close this year if the government did not intervene within months.
Nineteen parent-run government school canteens have closed in recent years, while 16 have outsourced operations to commercial food suppliers. Only 51 canteens now operate, some for just one day a week.
The ACT School Canteen Association is also closing next month after 25 years, warning that the humble local tuck shop is an ''endangered species'' due to a lack of volunteers, too much regulation and financial pressures.
ACT Education Minister Joy Burch said it was sad to see the association closing, but canteens were operating in a new environment and schools needed to make their own decisions about how best to cater for students at lunchtime.
Mrs Burch, who had volunteered at her children's tuck shop, said she was not philosophically opposed to outsourcing the canteens to commercial operators.
It is just one of several options a ministerial taskforce is considering as pressure increases on canteens in government schools.
Mrs Burch said she expected to receive preliminary recommendations from the taskforce in the first half of the year, but Labor's $1 million promised at the recent election was not budgeted to start flowing until next year.
The Council of P&C Associations is proposing online ordering and joining New South Wales procurement processes.
Treasurer Hugh Boulter said these two initiatives could be put in place overnight.
Joining NSW procurement processes - such as those used by ACT hospitals and nursing homes - to allow online ordering of fresh ingredients - could bring in savings of up to 25 per cent.
Online ordering would require set-up costs of about $450 a school but would greatly reduce the burden on canteen managers who would not have to handle money or process individual orders each day.
Mr Boulter warned that if things did not change for canteens ''more will undoubtedly close this year''.
Liberal Education spokesman Steve Doszpot said the government had been too slow in addressing the death of the school canteen and would need to act urgently.
''If the government has got $1 million to spend on the issue, then surely it should bring it forward now to stop further closures,'' he said. ''People need assistance now.''
He warned against regulating school canteens and parent volunteers ''out of existence''.
Mrs Burch was unaware of the planned closure of the canteens association. She said while she could not intervene in the next couple of weeks to prevent it, she would consider options recommended by the taskforce ''outside the budget'' process if they could improve the viability of canteens. Small grants were also available to help canteens upgrade equipment.
But she also said it was unlikely government policy could resolve the lack of volunteering parents and that canteens needed to operate in a different environment.
''Volunteering hours within schools are reducing, and perhaps it's a decision for schools to say how best to use those resources.''
While the canteen association's chairwoman, Debbie Tobin, said canteens were struggling to keep up with increased training and administrative demands, Mrs Burch said regulations including food safety requirements were an important improvement for canteens and would not be wound back.
Similarly, the ACT's commitment to lowering childhood obesity in line with a national partnership would continue to stay on the agenda, with Nutrition Australia overseeing menus in ACT schools and training canteen managers.
Mr Boulter warned that any move by the government to encourage outsourcing would raise risks.
''Outsourcing is our least preferred option for social, nutritional, and community reasons. Outsourcing will increase the cost for families and potentially lack viability, which will see schools end up with nothing.''