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Strength in Numbers

Centralised meal catering project

Most parents can attest to the struggles of feeding children healthy food. Put a pair of siblings together and you could end up with one who hates vegetables and another who enjoys it. For many parents, preparing a single meal that is not only healthy but can please everyone in the family is a tall order.

Now… Imagine this situation. Multiplied by 50 children. 

That’s the ‘nightmare’ childcare centres in Singapore face on a daily basis - grocery shopping and preparing nutritious meals for around 100 children under their care.

Given the slowdown in our local workforce growth, it’s no surprise that pre-school centres face a constant struggle in hiring cooks. To cope with this shortage, pre-school teachers often have to step in by donning cook’s aprons themselves.

Surprisingly, the solution to this shortage of cooks has always been staring pre-school operators in the face – hire a catering service. Sounds easy, but it was certainly not cost-effective for a caterer to prepare and deliver lunch for what they considered a "small number" of children.

Enter ASSETS, e2i and WSG…

Not anymore, thanks to the Centralised Meal Catering Project - the brainchild of the Association of Early Childhood and Training Services (ASSETS) and Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).

A survey with pre-school operators informed ASSETS of the problem around catering food for their centres’ children. e2i also noticed that pre-school operators often face challenges in recruiting and retaining their cooks through companies’ feedback and job vacancies submitted. They then approached ASSETS to partner them for this productivity project.

For a few years, some operators tried working together to design their own joint meal catering service, according to Mr Xu Yijue, Director of pre-school centre TwinkleKidz@Bendeemer. However, as there were too few centres to accrue significant cost savings and blighted by a lack of coordination, the idea never took off and remained a distant goal for all.

Operators discussing centralised meal catering project

Operators Ms Susan Loke (L) and Mr Xu Yijue (R) and ASSETS’s Dr. T. Chandroo (middle), Mr Robert Leong (second from left) and Mr Freddy Kong (second from right) in discussion over the Centralised Meal Catering Project

With the joint effort of e2i, ASSETS as well as involvement of Workforce Singapore (WSG), the partners were able to pool a large enough number of pre-school operators on-board the programme to ensure its success. As this project could only come to fruition with the collaboration of a group of enterprises, and on the endorsement of the industry’s association, ASSETS themselves, the Centralised Meal Catering Project easily fitted the bill under the Lean Enterprise Development Scheme.

Working towards a common goal

With the enthusiastic backing from the operators, ASSETS and e2i set the wheels in motion for this journey towards greater efficiency. “We invited meal catering vendors to bid for this project, while bringing in a nutritionist to vet their menu offerings,” said ASSETS’ Chairman Dr T Chandoo. “Meeting Health Promotion Board's guidelines for children’s meals was one of the many strict criteria vendors were graded against.”

With 29 pre-school centres on-board, intense competition for this now-lucrative contract saw 5 vendors present their vision for this project, with operators scoring them on factors such as hygiene, taste and menu variety.

Eventually, SATS Food Services was selected for the Centralised Meal Catering Project, tasked with preparing healthy and nutritious meals for the children in the 29 pre-school centres.

Bumpy ride for all

It was only inevitable that any LEDS project with long-term productivity gains in mind would face initial teething problems. “The first three months (of the pilot stage) was certainly the most difficult,” remarked Ms Susan Loke, Chief Operating Officer of G8 Education Singapore, which operates Cherie Hearts, Bright Juniors as well as Our Juniors’ Schoolhouse. "There were many operational issues to iron out, such as delivery times and spillages.”

Fortunately, SATS was forthcoming in resolving these issues, even addressing the most minor feedback from the pre-school centres. “Ninety per cent of operators’ concerns were addressed, such that those who joined after the pilot could enjoy a fine-tuned system,” said ASSETS’ Vice Chairman, Mr Robert Leong.

With teamwork, comes benefits aplenty for all involved

This project’s success was all the more sweeter with pre-school operators banding together to resolve issues. Their collaborative spirit benefitted the staff, educators and most importantly the children from the 29 pre-school centres.

Through a Job Redesign Grant from e2i, existing cooks were retained and retrained in basic care duties, while continuing to prepare the children’s teatime snacks. They’re certainly happier spending more time with the children and pre-school teachers can now focus on the development of their children, instead of worrying about their meals. 

Children eating their created meal

Children from Cherie Hearts enjoying their centralised catered meal

Parents are also happy with the quarterly menu changes which ensures variety for their children as well as the consistency of a healthy menu. “Aside from favourites like claypot rice and soya sauce chicken, the children really like the vegetables too!” Mr Xu remarked. “Some even ask for second servings!” 

Short term pain, long term gain

With operators enjoying total cost savings of 10%, the benefits of enterprises collaborating under the LEDS is apparent – a better quality workforce with less costs involved.

“The power of working together helped my centre resolve a critical manpower issue,” said Ms Loke. “As the meals are catered, we can focus more on what our educators need to do their job even better.”

Children eating their created meal

The children enjoying their catered lunch with G8 Education Singapore’s Ms Loke

Despite initial hurdles, LEDS projects such as the Centralised Meal Catering Project show how competing companies can work together to increase the productivity of the entire industry. These companies not only optimise their resources but also resolve long-standing sectoral problems – all within the constraints of a manpower-lean environment.

Find out more about the Centralised Meal Catering Project in this videographic!

Credit: e2i and ASSETS

Interested to be part of this Project? Contact ASSETS today!

If you’re an SME looking to collaborate with your peers, tap on LEDS to improve your productivity and save costs!