There are so many mixed messages about food, it can sometimes be hard to separate the good advice from the bad. But what if you could get to people at their critical learning stages, to teach them about how food really is, well, good?
From talking to Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent, this is exactly what the catering company is doing at schools across the country.
I met her at Fulham School, a school with 700 children across its three stages, to discuss the complex topic further.
She says: “It’s not about ‘healthy eating’ because in our society we have created some issues around using terms like that. Food is good for you; that’s been at the core of our strategy. If a child says to me, ‘I can’t have that, that’s bad for me’, then I’ve failed. Food is not bad, it’s how and what you eat.”
It was this passion and knowledge that stuck out to Fulham School, as business manager Jane Knott told me: “We went through a very rigorous re-tender process at the end of last year. It was a slightly unusual situation in that Brookwood, the incumbent caterer, had recently become CH&CO Independent. Deborah came to visit us to explain the transition they were in, and they had this assertiveness and hunger for the contract.
“They straight away started demonstrating what they could do in terms of a balance of innovative and nutritional, current food for the children. We felt they were very open and looking for a partnership. And in terms of commercial goals and value for money, it ticked all the boxes.”
The children even got involved in the re-tender process as they are the ultimate end user, sampling food from the shortlisted caterers and talking to the teams. “The children found it a really enjoyable experience and liked being part of the decision-making process,” says Knott.
The relationship between Fulham School and CH&CO Independent is a two-way street, with shared goals in mind.
Homshaw comments on CH&CO Independent’s partnership with the school: “It’s very open, honest and energised.
I love their vision and it matches our own. We want to make a difference, educate and make food the best it can be for children. We don’t call it school food, it’s just good food. I love the partnership because they see that as well. It’s so good to work with a team where all the senior team is involved; they care, they take the time.”
With a plethora of different diets and allergies nowadays, is it really possible to create a menu that pleases every child, and teacher? “Even if you don’t consider any diets or any allergies, I would say one menu will never fit everyone,” explains Homshaw.
“It is a challenge because the list is growing, but it’s an interesting challenge. We work very much as an inclusive menu because we don’t want to single children out. There are some very extreme allergies and requirements, in which case Amanda Ursell, our consultant nutritionist, will talk to the parents. She is central to what we do. It sometimes also involves the school nurse for rare conditions.
“I think that challenge will continue and increase but it’s all done in an open, honest way. It’s also done responsibly so if you’re removing a food type, the meal is still nutritionally balanced so they’re not lacking anything. We train our teams online and face-to-face so the amount of knowledge they have is huge.”
This training allows the chefs to create innovative dishes that allow all children to feel welcome at the dining table. For example, on ‘fish Friday’, a classic across the UK, Fulham School offered another option alongside traditional fish and chips in the form of breaded banana blossom.
Chef Mike Worters tells me: “It’s an Asian fruit which is tasteless by itself but it can take on a lot of flavour. We put seaweed in the crumb to give it that fish flavour and it flakes like fish because it has layers of leaves. It’s one of our latest plant-based options and it’s very popular. The number of meat-free dishes we make here has doubled in the last two to three months as interest continues to grow.”
Some of the items alongside this were beetroot and kale polenta chips, sweet potato chips, Cajun cauliflower, courgetti, as well as a salad bar with a huge range for every taste. The menus are constantly evolving, and regular parent feedback sessions with CH&CO Independent ensure the students are happy.
The school is looking to make some significant changes over the next few years, as Fulham’s Pre-Prep school site currently does not have its own kitchen, with meals transported there from the prep school each day. A new kitchen and dining room will be installed ready for September.
The senior school has also just had a new site completed, which will be moved into in the next academic year, where CH&CO Independent will work with the team to build an appropriate food offering for the older students (a street-food theme has been discussed).
At the prep school, there are also plans to refurbish the kitchen to add more seating, enhance the workflow and even introduce cooking clubs for the children. A sustainability piece will also be incorporated at the food waste station, to help children understand more about the impact on the environment.
With food just one part of the school day, it is encouraging to see Fulham School putting so much effort into making it the best it can be. Knott says: “We are committed to getting this right. I’d like Fulham to be the jewel in the crown of CH&CO Independent when they’re talking about a site. We’re not there yet but there’s a lot of energy and commitment behind making it right.
“I really feel like we’re working with a partner. We do have some difficult conversations but it’s all honest and I think that’s all you can ask for. We have the same goals and we want to be successful together.”
To find out more about CH&CO, visit: www.chandcogroup.com/education