A farming business in Essex has proved itself to be a class act – by branching out into school catering.

Ashlyns Catering started life as an organic farm near Harlow but, like many farming businesses, embraced the need to diversify, working on an array of innovative projects before settling on contract catering for the education sector.

MD Gary Stokes explains: “We started off by launching a vegetable box scheme for the local villages, which we still do. I had two young daughters who, at the time, weren’t school age so I was totally oblivious to the state of school meals. We started to investigate the sector and I was totally shocked and appalled by the lack of local produce so I decided we had got to try to
make a difference.”

He contacted Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and set up a project called ‘Feeding our Future’, which had several components, including growing exactly what was needed for
school meals.

“We engaged with local growers and sort of became a wholesale business selling fresh fruit and vegetables at the right price and quality for schools,” continues Gary.

From there, the company converted a cattle barn into a training kitchen, which was opened by Jamie Oliver, offering two-day courses to inspire school caterers to use fresh produce. Also, a lottery-funded project called ‘Can Cook Will Cook’ was set up to work with disadvantaged people which ran for four years until the funding platform changed.

“Most training is done in-house now because schools don’t have the resources to send their staff off-site so we had to re-think the business,” says Gary.

“There’s no way on earth I would have anticipated doing contract catering but, thankfully, I had a really great team around me who encouraged me to give it a go. I also had a number of customers who were hesitant about taking their catering operation in-house but who said they’d sign up straight away if I was to offer that service to them.”

The new concept launched in 2008, offering “catering partnerships” to local schools.

“It was the best decision we ever made because we manage the whole process,” adds Gary.” We are all one big team, not just a supplier. We couldn’t do what we wanted to do without like-minded people who believe, like we do, that food should be part of the whole school day.”

Ashlyns is committed to using locally sourced, organic where possible, and environmentally sound raw ingredients for meals which are cooked from scratch on school premises.

The farm has an in-house butchery so all of the meat is prepared on site.
“We are able to use quality topside beef and make our own mince and burgers so we know exactly what has gone into them,” adds Gary.

Menus are designed to meet the School Food Plan and are then analysed by a computer package to provide accurate nutritional and allergen information.

As for dry goods, they are all supplied by Ashlyns’ Country Range Group wholesaler. “The technical data that we need is critical and our Country Range Group wholesaler listens and completely understands our needs,” says Gary. “They also know we want MSC-certified fish, to reduce palm oil, and to reduce packaging. They provide us with policy statements and any information I need which I can then pass on to the schools, which, of course, makes us look good!”

As schools only operate 38 weeks of the year, Ashlyns offer event catering in the summer months, and have also diversified into health sector catering.