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Canteens taking last orders

Tina Mizgalski believes providing healthy food for her two young girls (Ella, age 6 and Ruby, age 2) is most important for navigating nutritional choices in their later life.

Tina Mizgalski believes providing healthy food for her two young girls (Ella, age 6 and Ruby, age 2) is most important for navigating nutritional choices in their later life. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

The humble school canteen, staffed by volunteers and run by local parents and citizens groups, may soon become a thing of the past in the ACT.

After 25 years, the ACT School Canteen Association is closing down, saying local canteens are an "endangered species" due to a lack of volunteers, too much regulation and financial pressures.

Nineteen parent-run government school canteens have closed in recent years, while 16 have opted to outsource their operation to commercial food suppliers. Only 51 canteens now operate and some are open for just one day a week.

The association's chairwoman, Debbie Tobin, said there was a risk that private companies would continue to step in to fill the void if more canteens shut down - putting profits ahead of nutrition and school fund-raising.

The ACT Council for Parents and Citizens Associations last year initiated a ministerial taskforce with the ACT government to stop the demise of school canteens. It said this year was make or break in terms of fighting to put canteens on a more sustainable footing or abandoning them to market forces and outsourcing.

Council treasurer and taskforce member Hugh Boulter said the situation was precarious. In a briefing to the taskforce, he warned that only a minority of school canteens were running successfully.

"It is clear that an increasing number are closing, or are in financial distress, so it is fair to say that the business model that worked 20 years ago, does not work now," he said.

Mr Boulter warned that canteens had become increasingly complex to run, compounded by a reduction in volunteer hours from parents and the "increasing mandatory workload to comply with new government policies, regulations and legislation".

Mrs Tobin said canteen managers had to complete training and coursework in their own time - as well as running canteens as small businesses with an increasingly heavy compliance and paperwork burden. Managers must complete food safety, working with vulnerable people, Nutrition Australia and food licence compliance obligations, among other regulatory requirements.

"It's really sad we are winding up, having been the only body for canteen managers since 1988, but the burdens placed on canteen managers now, compared to what they used to be, have more than doubled,'' she said.

''We don't blame them for saying enough is enough."

The association, which has 60 financial members, would be wound down, with a meeting scheduled next month to inform members.

"We have been warning of these issues for a long time now. Our question for many years has been why doesn't the government pay the salaries of canteen managers. Why not have their positions incorporated into the school?" she said.

While ACT Labor had pledged $1 million over four years to bolster canteens and their ability to increase nutritional outcomes in the territory, Mrs Tobin said canteens had not seen any of the money.

She said the government had appeared disposed to the concept of outsourcing but her experience was that nutrition could suffer as a result.

"I've looked at some of these company's menus and they look good on paper, but when I have attended the school, the food available is not what was on the menu. They are a business, they are making money and they want to make money," she said.

Mr Boulter also warned that outsourcing could have devastating effects on schools - "significantly limiting options for students to

access healthy nutritious and affordable food during school hours".

"If a canteen cannot break even with a heavy [P&C] subsidy, then it defies logic that it can be sustainable and make a commercial profit, even with higher prices and poor nutritional outcomes, and so outsourcing will ultimately result in canteen closures," he said.

The council's preferred route would be to allow ACT canteens to use NSW procurement processes - such as those used by ACT hospitals and nursing homes - to allow online ordering of fresh ingredients at reduced cost.

Separately, canteens would also need to move to online ordering to save staff time and increase ease of use by parents. Online ordering could be integrated with other payments to schools from parents, reducing Education Directorate administrative overheads. According to Mr Boulter, "these are simple measures which are very good value for money and they need to be acted upon urgently, or we will lose the heart and social involvement of parents in our schools and, most importantly, place our children at a real disadvantage in relation to health and nutritional outcomes".

For schools that have already lost their canteens, the council proposes operating central hub schools where large canteens can provide food to smaller schools in the area.

Education Minister Joy Burch said: "It would not be appropriate for the ACT government to pre-empt the findings of the taskforce by stating the types of outcomes we would like to see.

"What I can say is that given the breadth of stakeholder representation the taskforce has, I am confident that it will produce positive outcomes for canteen operators, students and families."

34 comments

  • Try cutting out the 60 financial members of the ACT Canteen Association, who obviously aren't helping the canteens, and putting those finances into schools, then follow the example of the minority of schools who are running successfully..

    Commenter
    I say..
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    February 13, 2013, 7:57AM
    • At $60 each for membership I don't think the $3600 will go very far.

      Commenter
      SLJ
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 13, 2013, 9:13AM
      • Good riddance I say!.

        The Canteens Association has been a very poor performer in representing the long term interests of children. It is not in their long term interest for canteens to continue to sell them junk food. Why?, because Australia is a fat nation (our kids are now, on average, fatter an kids in the USA). Further being fat is unhealthy.

        Hopefully most of the canteens will also close next!

        Commenter
        Remember 1996
        Location
        Reid
        Date and time
        February 13, 2013, 9:48AM
        • Take your own lunch, as least you know whose hands have been all over it.

          Commenter
          cape kev
          Location
          eltham
          Date and time
          February 13, 2013, 3:33PM
        • Don't blame the food, blame the parents for letting TV and video games mind their children. I ate all the junk food known to mankind when I was a kid but riding a pushbike to and from school and as fun, and playing various sports in the afternoons and at school ment I burnt all the calories. Don't ban junk food, it is part of free-choice, ban irresponsible parents and schools wrapping kids up in cotton wool.

          Commenter
          Amazed
          Location
          Warner
          Date and time
          February 13, 2013, 8:40PM
      • I hope that a clause has been put in place that these commercial food suppliers that run these canteens will have to use Australian food products.

        Commenter
        Alan
        Location
        Buy Australian
        Date and time
        February 13, 2013, 9:56AM
        • Isolationalism and nationalism go together and bring no benefits in the long run. Give and take, that's the way of the world.

          Commenter
          Comrade
          Date and time
          February 13, 2013, 11:05AM
        • Whats wrong with buying Australian if it helps out our Australian farmers and creates jobs for people in this country. I dont think its isolationist or nationalistic just beacuse you want to get fresh local produce.

          Commenter
          Brian
          Location
          Slow Cookiing
          Date and time
          February 13, 2013, 11:27AM
        • I believe such a clause would be in violation of the "free"-trade agreement with the US.

          I would not be surprised if schools lose the right to choose the contractor, and the contracts will be decided by the "education" departments of each state (Think national nutrition programme to end childhood obesity!). Very lucrative contracts I would suspect, and great opportunities for ruling political parties and powerful health lobby groups to source company donations.

          Commenter
          Gordon Rouse
          Location
          Yinnar South
          Date and time
          February 13, 2013, 11:30AM
        • Dont worry all will be fine when we dont have a farming industry in Australia and have to import all our food in from overseas.

          Commenter
          Robert
          Location
          Free Trade - Scam.
          Date and time
          February 13, 2013, 12:33PM

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