Wednesday, October 10, 2012

much the same there

Scotland recently had Martha Payne, who drew attention to the sad state of school dinners in her blog which the shamed local authority tried to ban .

In eastern Germany more than 11,000 schoolchildren were recently affected by gastrointestinal sickness -- most likely because of what they ate at school. Experts now believe that frozen strawberries from China are behind the massive outbreak of the norovirus

Germany has 11 million children attending 45,000 schools, and the number of them being fed at these schools is rising (a third of all 11- to 15-year-olds already go to school without having had breakfast). As a result, the school catering business is becoming highly competitive and growing at an annual rate of 5 percent. Already today, the five largest school catering companies generate combined revenues of some €160 million ($208 million) in the country. By far the largest of these is the French company Sodexo. The self-described specialist in "quality of life services" offers an extremely broad range of services, from nursing care to cleaning to catering. The company's global sales are estimated at €18 billion, and its 391,000 employees make it one of the 25 largest employers in the world. The family of company founder Pierre Bellon is believed to be the richest family in France. The company and its products quickly fell under suspicion of being at least partially responsible for the mass outbreak of illness in eastern Germany because many of the affected establishments were supplied by its industrial kitchens. Sodexo quickly became sector leaders with rock-bottom prices of €1.55 ($2) per meal and many employees working for low wages, according to the NGG union. Today, 65 Sodexo kitchens supply 200,000 daily meals all across Germany.

The fundamental problem remains the lack of willingness to pay enough for good food. Even Horst de Haan, the head of Sodexo operations in Germany, complains of enormous price pressure "The tendering rules call for an agency to accept the cheapest price," he says.

Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district decided that they weren't going to pay more than €2.10 for school lunches. And experts like Ulrike Arens-Azevedo,  professor of nutrition at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, explained "one cannot cook healthy food over the long term for such low prices."

Meanwhile, school children in rich cities, such as Konstanz in the southwestern state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, receive subsidized school lunches that cost roughly €4.50 each, use ingredients from the region and are 40 percent organic. In Gera, on the other hand, a city in the eastern state of Thuringia, meals can't cost more than €2.30, and parents are solely responsible for paying for them. Even the catering companies only receive a fraction of the cost of these low-priced meals. In addition to having to pay all of the 19 percent in value-added tax themselves, they are also responsible for energy, transportation and personnel costs. "Maybe 50 cents of the €2 are left to the caterer to pay for the ingredients," says Polster, the head of the DNSV advocacy association. "That already makes one wonder of what kind of quality they are."

Sarah Wiener, a celebrity chef, calls for schools to receive higher food subsidies. "By having meals at such a low culinary level, we cement a taste for industrial food," she says. "We shouldn't put the profit maximization of a sector over the well-being of our children."

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