When the BSE crisis reached its peak in the mid 1990s Roger Denton, National Chairman of the Advisory Body for Social Services Catering (ABSSC) as it was then, found himself in the eye of the storm. “Our members were inundated with people asking questions, asking what they should do, and we were able to deal with that, to help them,” he says. “We were able to put together both press releases and guidance for members. I did numerous radio interviews and such like because we were the representative of the care sector in catering, and people came to us for comment and advice.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) – renamed in 2002 to reflect the changes taking place in the care sector and to encompass members from the private sector – as a body which supports and nurtures the care catering sector, raising the profile of this Cinderella of the foodservice industry. The association has grown over the years and has had to change in order to keep pace with changes in legislation and the way that businesses are operated, but it has remained the figurehead for the care catering industry.
“The demographic of the membership has changed,” explains Roger. “When Care in the Community started in 1990 [enacted as the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990] it had a dramatic effect on social services departments and the services within local authorities. When I joined members were predominantly local authorities and now they’re very much a minority as local authorities have either sold off or contracted out their services.
“It is a matter of continual change in order to make what we’re doing and our work relevant to the industry. We do move with the times and even try to pre-empt some things to make ourselves more relevant; our membership expects us to be the authority, the knowledge figure for the industry – and so that’s what we strive to be, always.”
Roger, currently National Secretary of the NACC and in his day job an indedpendent food advisor for both schools and the care sector, is one of the association’s most colourful characters, whose enthusiasm and proactiveness as National Chair resulted in the establishment of what are still today the key cornerstones of the care catering calendar – Meals on Wheels Week, Care Chef of the Year and the National Training and Development Forum, for example.
Roger joined the association in 1991 when he went to work for social services. “I was made aware that it was available and it was the way to learn about the sector and network,” he says. He was elected chair in 1995 and remained in that post for six years.
“When I was chair I was very keen to start a care cook of the year competition, and just look at it now: the contest has gone from strength to strength and this year has been renamed Care Chef of the Year to reflect the high standards of cookery within the sector. I think that this is an excellent platform to show off the skills and the talent of the people we employ within care catering, because it’s like school meals: you’re always regarded as the poor relation, until people actually see the level of the food that is produced at these competitions – that really does highlight the standards that we’re talking about.”
One of the other major initiatives which Roger launched is Meals on Wheels Week. “We desperately needed something to curb the shutting down by some local authorities of the meals on wheels service. We got it off the ground and the first 10 years were really good, but then I think the focus of the National Executive shifted slightly which allowed a bit of a lull in the impetus of Meals on Wheels Week. It was renamed Community Meals Week, and people didn’t really know what that meant.
“We’ve made far more progress since reverting to Meals on Wheels Week four years ago: we had an excellent year last year and would hope to continue that momentum. Only last week a second meals on wheels service that had closed in Wales has reopened. The politicians are actually taking notice of us and beginning to accept that if someone is well nourished in their own home (which might be a care home) they’re less likely to be bed-blocking in hospital. We would very much like it to become
mandatory to provide meals on wheels: I don’t know if we’ll ever get that but it’s one of our main aims and objectives.”
How does it feel to be responsible for such an event that has not only become an institution in the care catering world but has also caught the public eye? “I’m very pleased that I thought to do it,” says Roger, “because we needed it. The fact that Meals on Wheels Week is still cutting edge, it’s still needed, I’m very proud to have come up with that. And the same with Care Chef of the Year: when people say it’s a wonderful platform to showcase the skills of our sector, I think, ‘I’m pleased I did that, I was right’!”
Another thing Roger came up with during his time as chair, again to raise the profile of the association and the sector as a whole, was taking part in The Lord Mayor’s Show. “We got sponsorship and we managed to do it for three years: it was a very good way of actively promoting what we were doing on the streets of London,” he says.
If you’ve ever seen any of the old photographs from those earlier days you’ll agree it looked like a lot of fun – dressing up as chefs for The Lord Mayor’s Show, delivering a meal to the Queen Mother, Roger himself taking to roller skates for a meal delivery… Lots of famous faces from TV, sports personalities and politicians were roped into photo opportunities, usually for Meals on Wheels Week. There seem to be fewer gimmicks these days. “I don’t think that’s for any particular reason,” says Roger. “We’ve got the likes of Facebook and Twitter now: we’re in a much more instant world and marketing has changed. But I still think there’s room for a bit of promotion on that scale because you can still get a lot of PR out of something like that!”
The outward frivolity of those occasions masked the serious intent behind them, and the desire of the association to actually ‘make a difference’.
“Until it was established, there was no body or organisation working on standards, and common practices for catering services within the care sector at all, there was nothing. When the Food Safety Act 1990 came into play so that the health and hygiene elements changed very much, and Care in the Community came in at almost the same time, people were looking for guidance and help and we were able to give it. One of the biggest things we worked on was a meals on wheels joint manual, which showed you what it should be, how it should be delivered and everything. We’ve updated that throughout our 30 year history and it’s still very relevant and very pertinent: when you look at any contracts the NACC’s ‘A recommended standard for community meals’ is what’s quoted and accepted.
“So I think we’ve really made our mark in history with that one! That has to be one of our major achievements.”
Much has been written about the impending crisis in social care, and the NACC is doing all it can to help members face the challenge head on. The key, says Roger, is “to be aware”.
“We try to keep apace of what’s going on, and with the profile of the association currently riding high we are increasingly being invited onto groups to make a contribution towards outcomes. We then feed back to our members, either through the regional meetings or via our newsletters. I think that’s a very relevant way of keeping ahead of the game.”
The NACC is trying very hard to connect with the CQC, as one of the key bodies regulating the industry, but it’s not easy, says Roger. Are they doing enough to improve nutritional standards? “I don’t think they’ve got enough expertise,” he says diplomatically. “I think we could help them a lot with that, if they’d let us.”
The upside of that is that members are being given a lot of support in their dealings with CQC.
Although there are no official nutritional standards for the care sector, over the years the NACC has built up a library of good practice guides to help members maintain professional standards and comply with changing legislation. The latest of these guidance documents is titled ‘How to provide good nutritional care and comply with CQC’s fundamental standards’ and it’s aimed at helping members to achieve good or outstanding CQC ratings.
Roger is the first to accept that many things about care home catering have changed for the better since the old ABSSC started the ball rolling 30 years ago, but he recognises that a lot of the residential
homes that are offering the best nutritional care today are not available to the majority. “They tend to be very expensive, and the reality is most people can’t afford that.
“So we mustn’t lose track of the fact that we still have a lot of work to do.” Right, here’s to the next 30