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."