School catering: lessons to be learned

How has the pandemic impacted school catering and what lessons can be embraced for the long term? By Val Proctor

The impact of Covid-19 on the global catering and hospitality industries is well-documented, but many people forget how the pandemic has impacted school catering just as much.

Gone is the era, perhaps, where lunchtimes were the social highlight of many pupils’ days, a time to catch up with friends from other classes and chat to teachers. Now, children are required to stay in their bubbles and, in many schools, teachers and support staff no longer have access to the cooked lunches that were a perk of working in an educational environment.

Sidcot School’s dining room has been redesigned to allow for more space between pupils

 

Looking local

Whilst schools have put a significant amount of time and effort into making the necessary changes, one upside is that schools have been turning more to local food suppliers, as seen at Monkton Combe School in Somerset.

“Some of our larger, regional suppliers have still not un-furloughed all of their sales staff and have limited stock availability. This has led us to ask more of our smaller, local, often family-run suppliers who have been only too willing to help us in any way they can during these challenging months,” says the school’s general catering manager, Steve Brown.

“We adapted our menu to suit the style of food-service operation we needed to become. We normally make around 95% of all the dishes consumed here from scratch on-site but with the restrictions in place this was no longer practical. We are now settled into this term so are looking again at how much we can make ourselves and whether any of our local suppliers can help to reduce the overall workload on site.”

Hilary Atkin, director of operations at Sidcot School in Somerset, agrees, saying: “Our menu cycle has changed considerably, and we have had to increase communication with our preferred suppliers to ensure commodities are available each day as the supply chain is massively affected by the pandemic.

“Staff are now only able to have a takeaway sandwich option to release vital space for our pupils in the dining area, but everyone has adapted very well to the new guidelines and are understanding of the reasons behind them, despite the disruption.”

At Elstree, a day and boarding prep school in Berkshire, the headmaster’s wife, Olivia Inglis, explains that the school has managed to maintain the tradition of a teacher sitting at each dining table with pupils to keep an eye on pastoral issues, table manners, balanced diet and good conversation.

“However, we have had to make other changes. For instance, there are three lunch sittings in bubbles now, rather than two, and the children are more spread out to allow for social distancing.

“There is also a real focus on handwashing and sanitising before and after meals. We have a one-way system around the dining room to keep bubbles apart, and our kitchen staff all wear visors and/or masks,” says Inglis.

school catering
The Marquee@Sidcot has provided additional dining space for pupils at Sidcot School

 

Change for the better

Before the pandemic, day pupils and boarders at Hertfordshire’s Edge Grove School were offered a breakfast club, while for lunch they were able to choose between a hot meat and vegetarian option.

Deputy head pastoral, Andrea Caldwell, says that while during lockdown pupils had to come to school with a packed lunch, hot food is now available again in the new term.

“Since returning in September, we have worked closely with our catering team at Holroyd Howe to continue to deliver a balanced menu to our children. The exception is the pre-school, where we are no longer able to offer a breakfast service or boarders’ supper to day pupils because of the issue of bubbles mixing.”

Catering manager John Bantawa-Doman has designed a menu that is balanced, nutritious, varied and healthy, while still being a viable logistical option for the catering team. There is an extended lunch service to allow the dining room to be sanitised between bubbles, and while the salad bar has had to be removed, certain elements are available to be served by the catering team when the children collect their lunch.

The school has got creative with its facilities, and has even converted a horsebox into an outdoor coffee station, offering staff an alternative place to get refreshments. This eases congestion in the staff room, ensuring social distancing can take place.

Monkton Combe School’s Brown believes the single biggest change for the school has involved the people. “Both our staff and our pupils have had to adapt to a range of safety-related physical distancing measures broadly similar to those experienced in retail and hospitality businesses.

“With more pupils returning to school we have also seen more instances of those placed in temporary isolation and a few in quarantine while test results are processed. We have had to devise food delivery and collection options to ensure everyone is fed appropriately during these periods.”

Brown believes staff are now more affected by the safety measures in place than pupils. “As we are able to manage the pupils in bubbles and households, we can time meal sittings so that each group has their own allotted space and we then have a protected window of time to clean down and reset before the next sitting.

“But this is harder on the staff as they have to physically distance from the pupils and each other, so we are offering a steadily increasing range of hot and cold grab ’n’ go takeaway options to suit various circumstances.”

Sidcot School’s facilities have undergone a tremendous transformation, including enhanced controlled access to the kitchens from external agencies, installation of pre-start staff welfare checks, changed break times to reduce traffic in the staff room and a redesign of the kitchen space to ensure limited crossover of personnel during the preparation, cooking and service.

“In addition,” explains Atkin, “we have invested in a new marquee which has been erected in the quad in the middle of school to provide additional space. Now, one bubble each day has a packed lunch collected and eaten in what we call the Marquee@Sidcot.”

The pandemic shone a stronger spotlight on seasonally available produce and the importance of minimising food waste – Deborah Homshaw, CH&CO Independent

Mandy Chambers, new markets and innovations manager for catering firm apetito, says the company has had to make significant adaptations to the way it works for the safety of everyone.

“We have changed our deliveries to contactless deliveries, and our meals are now delivered and placed directly by the driver into freezers at a point agreed with customers. There is no need for extensive food handling by school catering, or sourcing of ingredients, both of which have created their own set of challenges throughout Covid-19.”

Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent, emphasises the importance of nurturing pupils to have a positive relationship with food to strengthen their mental and physical wellbeing, especially during uncertain times.

“During lockdown and over the summer months, we stayed connected with school communities with our From the Kitchen initiative, which saw us take our fun, interactive dining room activities virtually into people’s homes. Following this success, the team’s focus for the new academic year is the importance of ‘making every mouthful count’ for continued wellbeing.”

Edge Grove have converted a horsebox into an outdoor coffee station to ease congestion in the staff room

 

Embracing the future

Many schools believe the combined effect of Covid-19 with the imminence of Brexit is likely to cause short-term disruption to the food supply chain, increased costs and possibly the longer-term availability of certain goods depending on what trade deals are agreed.

“I suspect we will need to rethink how we feed ourselves as a nation and address the issues surrounding many food imports. I hope there is an opportunity to continue to support UK suppliers and build on this network which has proven itself invaluable recently,” says Brown from Monkton Combe School.

I suspect we will need to rethink how we feed ourselves as a nation and address the issues surrounding many food imports – Steve Brown, Monkton Combe School

Chambers from apetito says schools may well have concerns around how they maintain a quality catering provision should their own catering teams fall ill or need to self-isolate, but that there will undoubtedly be lessons that can be learned from Covid-19 that will potentially be embraced in the long term.

“The stresses that schools had before with inconsistency and problems with food suppliers, or increased cost of contracts, were all there before Covid-19 but these have been elevated for obvious reasons, with schools looking to make changes fast.”

Homshaw says the face of catering has changed forever. “The pandemic shone a stronger spotlight on seasonally available produce and the importance of minimising food waste. I hope we can go back to the joy and importance of social eating. The dining room is an important part of school life and for pupils’ social development and wellbeing – we all miss the buzz!”

School catering
Edge Grove pupils are getting used to new dining room procedures

 


CH&CO Independent chef Owen Hurley sings the praises of seasonal produce

“The pandemic has got a lot of people thinking more about supporting local business and suppliers and eating in line with the seasons. For me, this is nothing new. As a chef I’ve always followed the ethos of using seasonal produce wherever possible and promoting its benefits to others.

“Seasonal produce simply tastes better as it’s harvested and used at its peak quality. And because it’s not been on a long journey or stored for long, the nutritional value is at its optimum which, as a chef in schools, is really important. It’s also more cost-effective and supports the sustainability targets of caterers and schools. Protecting the planet is something we all need to continue to focus on.

“With seasonality in mind, our menus throughout the remainder of 2020 will give our pupils a masterclass in what’s currently being harvested and why it’s so good for our health and wellbeing. Pupils can expect to enjoy dishes such as harissa cauliflower steak with a warm tabbouleh; beetroot brownies; Goan pumpkin, tofu and chickpea curry; pumpkin and leek chow mein with crispy kale and toasted soy seeds; west African stew with sweet potato and greens; and shin of beef with root vegetable cottage pie and cheddar topping.”


 

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