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Cheshire East is to hold talks with headteachers about ending its loss-making school meals service but councillors didn’t make the expected decision to close it, writes Belinda Ryan.

The council’s catering service, operating under the name of Fresh, currently provides lunches and snacks to 87 schools and employs approximately 270 people.

Over recent years, Cheshire East has had to subsidise the service, which it says it can no longer afford.

The children and families committee was yesterday (Monday) asked to approve its closure.

Instead it opted to give officers the go-ahead to enter into discussions with those schools who buy into the service to cease the provision by the end of December 2024.

The committee will then consider the matter again.

Cllr Laura Smith (Crewe, Lab) said: “I don’t want this to turn into a situation where we see any standards dropping so I would like some reassurance on that and a good food culture being promoted, including cooking culture and growing culture.

“I actually think there’s a lot of things we can do locally if we think smartly about it.”

Cllr Janet Clowes (Wybunbury, Con) said: “There is no doubt that, looking at the example of some of our academies where they have joined together and they are producing their own catering arrangements and have moved out of local authority catering services, the reports are good in terms of the standard of meals.”

She said closing the service would not in any way affect children entitled to free school meals.

But Cllr Rachel Bailey (Audlem, Con) said: “There are 87 schools that still use this service.

“We really need to understand, in my opinion, before making any decision, what is the likely impact on them… There are so many questions also about public health.”

Clare Williamson, director of strong start, family help, and integration, said officers had been working on this for several weeks and wanted to explore all options with schools.

“I’ve been contacted by many schools,” she said.

“There was an initial element of fear but, since then, I’ve had a number of schools who have come up with so many initiatives of what they want to take forward.”

She added if the council kept the catering service in-house ‘we would have to raise the prices so high we feel that would be to the detriment of the families’.

A report to the committee estimates if the council was to continue running the service without subsidising it, the cost of paid meals would need to rise to more than £4 per child which might stop many parents buying them.

“Another factor is we’re subsidising academies and that is a cost to the local authority and we absolutely should not be doing that,” said Mrs Williamson.

Cllr Reg Kain (Alsager, Lib Dem) said he thought the service should be retained because “we have some control over what they [children] put inside them”.

Gill Betton, head of children’s development and partnerships, said: “Even if we wanted to deliver a catering service, it’s now whether schools would want to pay the price that we’re going to be looking to increase to make that balance.”

Cllr Becky Posnett (Bunbury, Con) said she felt the committee did not have enough information or any feedback from schools and so could not make a decision at this stage.

An amendment was proposed by Cllrs Posnett and Clowes that officers enter into discussions with those schools who buy into the service to cease the provision by the end of December 2024.

Ten councillors voted for and one abstained.

The matter is also due for further discussion today as part of the budget setting process at corporate policy committee.

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