It is no longer unusual for us to see a range of other nationalities amongst pupils, especially in senior boarding schools, even in schools which would not consider themselves “international”. British independent senior schools are increasingly attracting students from abroad due to the high standard of education and a desire from wealthy overseas individuals to give their children the best, as well as economic reasons at home and abroad.
The pastoral care of boarders can become even more poignant for caterers when pupils are not only away from home at a young age, but in a foreign country as well, with no ability to comfort eat as the food can be unfamiliar. It is worth remembering that these will be the pupils who are more likely to remain at school over the weekends.
However, these overseas students are, like British independent school pupils in the main, at the forefront of the “global diet”. Therefore wholesale changes are not likely to be required to a well-planned British school menu. Whilst not being exactly like the versions you will find in their country of origin, there are many dishes that have crossed the international divide. Even if cottage pie hasn’t travelled much, there can’t be many countries that don’t serve spaghetti bolognaise. However, assuming that the majority of pupils are still likely to be from the UK, there are some ways that minority groups can be made to feel welcome.
International students’ unfamiliarity with typical British carbohydrates can be a challenge. Similarly, because of their unfamiliarity with the choices available, students from abroad have a propensity to make strange choices of food or accompanying condiments. I know, for example, that an explanation is required for pupils’ first encounter with ‘pudding’ being offered with beef. Overseas students may make mistakes, such as covering their fish and chips with gravy or, even worse, custard, simply because of their inexperience with western cuisine. Unfortunately, this can lead to ridicule as well as a thoroughly unpleasant meal. The school and the caterer can work together in making these first weeks more welcoming for pupils who may not understand the food.
The introduction of an extensive condiment counter can help make a dish have “the taste of home”. Additionally, providing Asian students with sticky rice at every service deals both with the “culture shock” of having to eat unfamiliar food and the need to deliver sufficient carbohydrate for a balanced diet. In fact an early discussion about food can give a lot of pointers to the route to joint understanding for both pupil and caterer.
Variety creates a more exciting cuisine for pupils and offers international pupils a taste of their home cuisine. I have come to learn that teenage pupils have a low boredom threshold, and engaging overseas student groups with authentic dishes can provide a win:win. Who would have known that most American moms make pumpkin pie with tinned pumpkin? So catering for Thanksgiving with US students means putting our fresh food policy to one side in order that the most important celebration in the US calendar has a real taste of home.
Engaging student groups and their parents in helping showcase the food from their country can knock down barriers and build a whole sense of community. However, do beware of long-held tensions: on one occasion we put ‘Greek koftas’ on the menu, only to encounter a deeply offended Turkish boy claiming the dish for his country. The next time it was ‘lamb koftas’.
Lastly, the question as to whether a British education ought to mean a British diet? British cuisine has a huge number of foreign influences, and British students would likely be disappointed if they did not regularly have Indian, Chinese or Italian options on their menu. Likewise, one reason we like to travel is to experience the food at our destination. Food should be part of the education process and used to enrich pupils’ knowledge of the world we live in. Increasing multiculturalism in the independent sector is something to be celebrated – and reflected in the food caterer’s offer.
Sue Parfett is managing partner of the Brookwood Partnership