CHESHIRE East Council is looking at closing its catering service meaning schools relying on it would have to sort their own arrangements for meals.

Schools across the borough currently have a number of different arrangements in place, including some that buy back from Cheshire East’s catering service or use another third party provider, and some which provide school lunches themselves.

Cheshire East’s catering service, operating under the name of Fresh, currently provides lunches and snacks to 87 schools.

But, whereas it used to operate at a profit, which benefited the council, over recent years there has been a shortfall between income and expenditure.

As a result, the council has been subsidising the service.

Northwich Guardian: The meeting will be held at Westfields on MondayThe meeting will be held at Westfields on Monday (Image: Cheshire East Council)

A report to next week’s meeting of the children and families committee says: “Given the financial position of the council, the catering service needs to be self-financing or cost-neutral to the council.”

The price the council charges schools for meals it provides, increased in January to £2.53 for a free school meal. Paid meals increased by 15 per cent.

The report states: “The January increase should offset the 2023/24 school catering shortfall by approximately £207,600 and provide a full-year increase of £709,900 in 2024/25.

“However, the increased charge will not support its [the service] long term viability."

The council estimates if it is to continue running the service without subsidising it, it would need to charge an average of £3.15 per meal from April.

If free school meals were charged at the existing rate of funding provided by the government of £2.53, then paid meals would need to rise to more than £4 per child.

Because of the impact this would have on school budgets, the council expects schools would pass on some, or all, of that increase to parents.

This could result in families choosing not to pay for a school meal - and any significant reduction in the take-up of paid meals would increase the budget pressure on the council further.

The report says: “It is therefore proposed to cease trading the school meal service at the earliest opportunity in negotiation with schools.”

It adds schools would be supported to explore all other options, including information on the process should they wish to provide their own school meals or to procure alternative provision.

The committee on Monday will be asked to consider five options – these include closing the catering service, retaining it but ensuring it is self-funded or out-sourcing it.

The council’s officers are recommending the committee approve the option to cease Cheshire East catering service by the end of December 2024 if possible, following discussions with schools.

The service currently employs approximately 270 people and the report says, in the event of Cheshire East stopping the service, as many staff as possible would TUPE over to the new provider.

The children and families committee meeting takes place at 2pm on Monday, February 12, at the council’s Westfields HQ at Sandbach.