A former home economics teacher and a school cook from Corby are the brains behind a businesses that provides 8,000 school meals each day to primary school children across Northamptonshire.
Julie Belford and Lesley Willoughby first stepped in to run the school kitchen at Kingswood Secondary School, Corby, in 1991 when the county council scrapped its school meals service.
Now, 25 years on, their firm Kingswood Catering provides about 40,000 school meals every week for children in 69 schools across Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire.
They mastermind the business from their base on an unassuming Corby industrial estate.
The company employs 140 local people - many of them parents who work part-time around term-time hours - and most of their management team started out as dinner ladies.
They try to use local ingredients and provide a range of healthy, balanced meals to schools from Oundle in the far north of Northamptonshire, to Yardley Gobion on the southern border.
Managing director Julie said: “In 1991 I was teaching home economics at Kingswood and the county council pulled out of school meals so the head Brian Tyler asked me to run the canteen.
“I didn’t want to stop teaching so I had a conversation with Lesley who was the cook at Beanfield Primary School and she agreed to run things so I could carry on teaching.”
The pair decided to gradually revolutionise school meals to make them healthier - but were up against the chip van and the ice cream man that visited Kingswood each lunchtime.
Julie, who on her website is dubbed the original Jamie Oliver, decided to offer five healthy options every day and ditch the junk food. But Lesley said that they should take a more softly-softly approach.
“I wanted to go in all-guns-blazing,” said Julie. “But Lesley said it wouldn’t work because children could go to the chip van outside and the ice cream van even came into the playground. That was what we were up against.
“We started to offer the healthy food at a low cost. The fruit was very cheap and we didn’t charge at all for vegetables.
“We said to the kids ‘look, you can have chips, but you can’t have chips on their own.’ We said they could have a can of coke but only one can.”
After their canteen was a success, Lodge Park School asked the pair to run their kitchen and all the other secondary schools at the time in Corby followed. The pair left the school in 1996 for a new base at Eismann Way, Corby, before they bought their current premises in Fleming Road in 2009.
It has taken the duo the full 25 years to offer exactly what they envisioned all those years ago - five healthy, balanced meal options each day for children across the county, made freshly in school kitchens or in their Corby base by real cooks.
The bread comes from Corby’s High Street Bakery and the veg comes from Eureka in Wellingborough.
Operations director Lesley still uses her battered old school cook’s recipe book as a basis for many recipes, which also have to comply with the government’s School Food Plan.
A special diet co-ordinator ensures that children with allergies or those who are vegetarian, vegan or gluten or dairy-free are catered for.
They now have 16 kitchens in schools around the county. Cooks-in-charge create meals for multiple schools from each kitchen, and the meals are then driven to each school.
The cooks are not expected to undertake administrative duties or do ordering - they are asked instead to devote all their time to getting the meals right.
In September, they will take on an extra 22 Northamptonshire schools when the county council ceases its Nourish meals service and have been given planning permission to extend their premises in Corby to make way for the increased workload.
Julie, originally from Lancashire, said: “We’ve never really had a business plan. It’s just evolved really. I think we’re a bit surprised by how things have gone but I wouldn’t go back to being a home economics teacher. Pupils seem to be marked these days on whether they can draw a cake, rather than whether they can make one.”
The schools supplied by Kingswood Catering in our area:
Rowan Gate School, Wellingborough
Little Stanion Primary
St Patricks RC Primary, Corby
Studfall Juniors, Corby
Exeter Primary, Corby
Hawthorn Primary, Kettering
Millbrook Junior, Kettering
Woodnewton School, Corby
Danesholme Infants, Corby
Danesholme Juniors, Corby
Exeter Nursery School, Corby
Kingswood Nursery School
Our Lady of Walsingham, Corby
St Brendan’s RC Primary, Corby
Studfall Infants, Corby
Havelock Infants, Desboroguh
South End Infants, Rushden
South End Juniors, Rushden
The Avenue Infants, Wellingborough
Millbrook Infants, Kettering
Park Infants, Kettering
Park Juniors, Kettering
Earls Barton Primary