‘We can’t feed kids at these prices’: School canteen operators ask for subsidies

With the rising costs of ingredients, they claim that they are struggling, especially when their prices are contractually bound by canteen tenders.

Allison Lai and Diyana Pfordten

Allison Lai and Diyana Pfordten

The Star


January 9, 2023

PETALING JAYA – School canteen operators are calling on the government to allow them to buy ingredients at subsidised prices and for further exemption of rental in order to keep their prices low while offering affordable and nutritious meals to schoolchildren.

With the rising costs of ingredients and sometimes shortages in food items, they claim that they are struggling, especially when their prices are contractually bound by canteen tenders.

ALSO READ: Three months’ free rental for school canteen operators to address rising costs

While they are grateful for the recently announced rent exemption by the Education Ministry, which is temporary, they hope additional measures can be implemented.

Malaysian School Canteen Operators Association secretary Siti Normah Md Desa suggested that canteen operators be allowed to buy subsidised cooking oil.

“We are serving schoolchildren who mostly can’t afford expensive meals. Perhaps we should be allowed access to some vital ingredients at subsidised rates.

“For example, a kilo of chicken was RM8.50 last week, and now it has increased by another RM2.80 to RM11.30.

“If we could buy these ingredients at a more stable or subsidised rate, it would help us a lot,” she said in an interview yesterday.

She urged the government to have a better rental system to allow school canteen operators to keep their operating costs low and offer better meals for schoolchildren.

“Canteens are a vital part of schools and most operators are not there to make huge profits. It is only right that we give our schoolchildren decent and affordable meals made by qualified operators,” she added.

Siti Normah said since 2022, more than 40% of the association’s 10,200 members nationwide had chosen not to continue with their operation at the end of their contracts, which was blamed on increased operating costs.

“Some even resorted to hiring a ‘caretaker’ operator while waiting for their contracts to expire,” she said.

Canteen operators, she added, could not adjust prices at their whims as the price range of food, drinks and rental rate must adhere to what was agreed upon in the tender contract.

“Each contract lasts for two years. Some schools might grant an extra year if the operator performs well,” she said.

Siti Normah also said operators who submitted their tenders in 2021 for the 2022 school year had much to lose due to the continuous price hikes of ingredients.

“But for the new ones and those who continue in the new session, their tenders would have factored in the higher costs and they are able to adjust their prices,” she noted.

On a news report that prices of canteen food had gone up by 50%, Siti Normah said this only applied to several food items which saw a shortage earlier.

“Only the new operators and those who continue for the tender session between Dec 1, 2022, and Nov 30, 2024, are introducing new prices. The items include roti canai, which is priced at RM1.50, up from RM1 previously due to the 100% increase in the prices of flour and margarine.

“Some canteens also sell fried chicken at between RM1.50 and RM2 now, up from RM1 last year.

“Operators on previous tender contracts are still selling at the old prices,” she said, adding that canteen food was still relatively cheap and affordable.

“Pocket money of RM4 is enough for fried rice with a fried egg and a glass of water at most school canteens,” she said.

She added, however, that there had been a price hike, especially for fish and vegetable dishes, for food served to teachers and school staff.

Meor Rasyid Meor Rahman, 33, who runs a school canteen in Cameron Highlands, is facing a rise in prices of goods as well as a shortage of essential items such as sugar, chicken and eggs.

“When my suppliers cannot supply the items, we have to buy from shops selling at higher retail prices,” said Meor Rasyid, who welcomed the exemption of canteen rent from January to March by the ministry.

“I hope that the exemption can be extended due to the many school holidays. In March, many school canteens will also be closed due to Ramadan.”

Kamariah Ibrahim, 65, who is based in the Klang Valley, is hoping that the government can do more to help canteen operators.

“The challenge is we sell food at low prices according to the tender contract, but we are facing a big increase in costs from our suppliers,” she said.

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