It was a chaotic first week of the new academic year for Moscow’s schools. Along with the usual stress of coordinating several hundred youngsters after a long summer break, teachers had an additional problem to deal with – the small issue of the government deciding to dismantle their canteens just days before the new term was due to begin.
The oddly-timed decision stemmed from a deal struck between the Moscow authorities and a catering company called Concord Food Complex in August.
The company, an offshoot of Concord Catering run by well-known St. Petersburg restaurateur Evgeny Prigozhin, won a state tender to run the canteens of some 270 schools in the south east of Moscow but work on the project started too late, causing chaos in the first week of term.
The 109 million ruble ($36 million) tender was part of a seemingly well-intentioned government project to improve nutrition and sanitary standards in Russian schools, but critics say Concord may not have been the most suitable candidate to reform the country’s school canteen system and some shady dealings may be at play.
Prigozhin is a known to be a close friend of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his company has been experiencing considerable success in top catering contracts in both Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past few years.
It has won contracts to run the catering at President Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration ceremony, the G8 summit, the 300-year anniversary of St. Petersburg, and the prestigious St. Petersburg Economic Forum. The company has several up-market restaurants in both cities, including one in the White House.
This is not Concord’s first experience of school canteen catering. Both Prigozhin and Putin were present at the opening ceremony last fall of a Concord factory outside St. Petersburg to provide canteen food to local schools.
Parents up in arms
Workers at a Concord food plant in Podolsk, Moscow Region
Concord has now managed to establish deliveries, albeit irregular ones, to most of the schools whose canteen systems have been overhauled.
But parents, it seems, are still not happy. Bloggers on LiveJournal have dubbed Concorde canteen food Whiskas, because, like cat food, it can be kept in storage for up to 20 days. Others have complained that the pre-packed lunch boxes resemble airplane meals.
“Children should eat natural food, not these pre-prepared lunches,” said Galina Shneider, head of the Moscow Parents social movement. “It is difficult to control the quality of food prepared in a factory. Food should be prepared just before it is served.”
Novaya Gazeta also reported that the overhaul has to the dismissal of kitchen staff in many of the schools affected just days before the new term was due to begin.
In theory, the concept of having a single catering company providing food school canteen food is not a bad one. Many European countries have similar systems to allow the state to keep control of sanitary and health standards.
But experts say competition may be being limited due to the lowprice nature of the industry and the dominance of Concord.
“It is difficult for small businesses to work efficiently in this sector as the returns are low due to low prices and long school holidays,” said Vladimir Chernigov, head of the state-run National Centre for Food Safety.
Concord built its St. Petersburg factory using a 30-40 million euro ($40-55 million) bank loan, a sum which smaller, less well-known companies would likely find difficult to obtain.
International catering firm Compass Group, which operates office and factory canteens in Russia and school canteens across Europe and the United States, says it is difficult for foreign firms, in particular, to enter the Russian market.
“The process of tenders in Russia is not quite clear for us and the prices of 42 rubles [$1.30] for breakfast and 79 rubles [$2.60] for lunch pushed by the officials are too low to offer a good quality product,” said Nicos Antoniades, Managing Director of Compass Group Rus, which operates under the Eurest and Puur brands.
“In Russia, tenders on serving food at schools are held every year, so it’s simply not possible to invest millions of dollars on the construction of a factory…and renovating school canteens and facilities for such a short term.”
Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”