The ACT opposition has called for urgent action to save Canberra’s school canteens, saying the ACT Government should bring forward a promised $1 million rescue package that is not budgeted to begin until next year.
The ACT Council for Parents and Citizens Associations has warned more canteens would close this year if the Government did not intervene soon.
Nineteen parent-run government school canteens have closed in recent years, and 16 more have outsourced their operation to commercial food suppliers. Only 51 canteens now operate and some are open just one day a week.
The ACT School Canteen Association is also closing down after 25 years, warning 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 had to make their own decisions about how best to cater for students at lunch time.
Mrs Burch, who herself had volunteered at her children’s tuck-shop, said she was not philosophically opposed to the idea of outsourcing parent-run canteens to commercial operators.
It was one of the options a ministerial taskforce was considering in response to increasing pressure placed on canteens across government schools.
Mrs Burch said she was expecting to receive some preliminary recommendations from the taskforce in the first half of this year, but the $1 million promised by Labor 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 NSW 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 cut costs by up to 25 per cent.
Online ordering would have an initial cost 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 before schools lost a valuable social and nutritional resource.
“If the government has got $1 million to spend on the issue then surely it should bring it forward now to stop further closures. People need assistance now,” he said.
He also warned against regulating school canteens and parent volunteers “out of existence”.
Mrs Burch was unaware of the planned closure of the Canteens Association and 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 “have an impact on improving the viability of canteens”.
But she believed it was unlikely the lack of parental hours for volunteering could be affected by any government policy and said canteens needed to operate in a different environment than they did 20 years ago.
“Volunteering hours within schools are reducing, and perhaps it’s a decision for school to say how best to use those resources,” she said.
While the Canteen Association’s chairwoman Debbie Tobin said canteens struggled to keep up with training and administrative demands of increased compliance, Mrs Burch said government regulations including food safety requirements had been an important improvement for canteens and would not be wound back.
Similarly, the ACT’s commitment to lowering the local childhood obesity rate would continue to stay on the agenda with Nutrition Australia overseeing menus in ACT schools and providing training for canteen managers.
Mr Boulter warned any move by the Government to encourage outsourcing to private providers would risk health and community outcomes.
“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,” he said.
Mrs Burch said it would be a decision for individual schools.