The unprecedented events of the past year have caused huge disruption across education. The sudden and all-pervasive changes to learning itself, and the adaptiveness and creativity that they demanded, unsurprisingly made most of the headlines, but there have been other, similarly deep-seated changes to school life. And school catering has been among the most affected areas.
As government and scientific advice began emerging following March 2020’s unprecedented lockdown, caterers realised that radical changes would be required to reopen safely. What’s more, the successive school closures and reopenings made for a volatile climate in which it was very difficult for catering managers (like so many other school staff) to plan far in advance.
So, one year on, how has the sector coped with all this turbulence and uncertainty; and what changes – both temporary and longer-lasting – have we witnessed?
Challenges faced by school caterers have varied immensely, not least with the many variables in place such as pupil ages, boarding or day school environments, kitchen and dining area capacity, equipment infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, staffing resource and management competence.
Challenges, from the very beginning, were legion. “School closures resulted in catering teams being furloughed, and managers had to start assessing risks, projecting viable operating scenarios and reviewing their resources – their people, suppliers, facilities and equipment,” reflects Hayden Hibbert, director of client relations at food procurement company allmanhall.
However, as often, a crisis has brought about some better ways of doing things. “Various solutions were adopted to enable safe reopening and the crisis has also identified opportunities for innovation, to reimagine and reform, to work smarter and leaner.”
Hibbert cites some of the most obvious changes that Covid forced on school caterers. “Counter service was replaced by plate service [where food is placed on plates by the kitchen staff and brought to tables by waiting staff] and other ‘touch points’, such as salad bars, closed. Lunch sittings were extended and additional dining areas were created to allow the separation of groups.
“Delivery systems were introduced whereby food was produced centrally and transported to collection points, and menus were reduced and simplified, with an increase in the purchase of ready-to-eat, pre-packaged foods and disposable products.”
Elsewhere, staff have been socially distanced in defined production zones, arrival times have been staggered and some teams have been split into separate cohorts, working opposite shifts. A frequent challenge has also been that the need for self-isolation and shielding have caused staff shortages, and these have only been exacerbated by increased cleaning requirements.
Mandy Chambers, senior new markets and innovations manager at caterers apetito, reflects on the challenge of waste: “With many schools facing varying numbers of pupils and staff dining on-site because of the ongoing pandemic, one of the biggest challenges faced by school catering staff has been managing cost and waste, while still catering for the preferences and dietary requirements of all on site.
“As a result, we have seen an increase in schools moving to a pre-prepared catering system which offers variety, convenience and consistency, while also saving schools money through streamlining operations, reducing waste and associated costs.
“As many meals are offered in a variety of portion sizes, catering teams need only cook what is required on a particular day, which helps manage cost and minimise wastage when catering for reduced numbers or specific dietary requirements.
“Schools may also be looking to change their catering solutions to reduce kitchen labour requirements – not only to reduce costs but also to offer added peace of mind that, even if the kitchen is short-staffed, the school will be able to maintain the consistency of its catering without compromising on quality.
“It is still uncertain how long social distancing will remain in place – and therefore schools, particularly those with small kitchens, may also be looking for longer-term solutions to allow for ongoing social distancing. The simplicity of using pre-prepared meals reduces the number of staff required in the kitchen at any one time, allowing schools to create a safer, more Covid-secure work environment for its catering team.”
Benenden School in Kent was the 2020 winner of the Best Food award at Tatler magazine’s Best Schools Awards. The school’s domestic bursar, Sue Franklin, agrees that one of the biggest challenges they have faced has been the issue of food waste, but they worked around it by donating surplus food to local food banks.
Another challenge has been securing fresh produce from Benenden’s usual suppliers. “Not all suppliers have been holding full stock as many hospitality businesses are still closed, an issue also exacerbated by Brexit,” Franklin explains.
“However, we have withstood these shortages by continuing to create weekly menus focused on seasonal produce wherever possible. We have also changed the timescales in which we order supplies, ordering much earlier than we usually would to ensure that our suppliers have advance notice of what we will require and when.”
Will the school’s catering offer, and processes, change significantly in the new term? Franklin says: “Our catering processes have had to change quite significantly during this time period and many of these changes will continue to be in place upon the girls’ return to school. We are continuing to have separate sittings for each year group bubble, after which the canteen and all areas where food is prepared and served are thoroughly cleaned before the next bubble is seated.
“We are also re-introducing smaller, self-service salad and fruit bars which are changed and cleaned thoroughly for each year group bubble. Vegan options are also displayed on the counter, along with items for those with particular intolerances, giving the girls all of the options in one easy-to-access place.
“We have spent time cross-training members of our catering team, ensuring that there is always an adequate number of team members trained in the required skills should anyone in the team have to self-isolate. We have two chef ‘bubbles’ in place should any staff members have to self-isolate or be away from school.
“Alongside this we have created an emergency plan, so that if both chef teams were unable to work, there are adequately trained staff members who are able to prepare a basic meal such as a pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce. All the required ingredients will always be held in stock – but, hopefully, with two chef bubbles, this won’t ever be required!”
Franklin explains their priorities for menus this year: “We have continued to prioritise seasonal menus, with lots of fruits and vegetables to promote good health. We always include a large range of vegetarian and vegan options and, as previously mentioned, we are looking at ways to make these options more readily available to the girls.”
Less is more
In his role as nutritionist with catering provider Chartwells, Niall Davison is the resident nutritionist at Millfield School, which was also nominated for Tatler’s School Food Awards.
“Covid has been challenging, but some of the solutions that we have put in place have actually improved the way Millfield dines,” Davison reflects, citing their pre-boxed salads as a popular option.
During the pandemic, Millfield delivered breakfast to alternate boarding houses each morning, with one house able to sit in the dining area. Davison says this resulted in increased take-up of breakfast as students enjoyed the more “relaxed nature” and this will continue post-Covid.
There have been many challenges contained within these changes – and also, stresses Hayden Hibbert, some clear benefits and signposts towards a more effective catering landscape.
“Supplier changes may have resulted in fewer deliveries and stock shortages, but we have seen an incredible level of cooperation, communication and flexibility – all essential, as caterers produce menus at shorter notice and rotate storage more efficiently.
“Elsewhere among the positives, simpler menus have focused production on ‘less is more’, arguably improving standards, and there has been an emphasis on healthier ingredients to boost immunity.
“Plated service, rather than self-service, has also made wastage easier to control. Sustainability is the next area to be addressed. Some things may never go back to the old ways, which may prove to be a positive.”
Sustainability never went away
By Deborah Homshaw, managing director, CH&CO Independent
Whilst operating in a safe way has rightly dominated the past year, other priorities have still been in play, even if momentarily out of the spotlight. Sustainability is a prime example of this. It never went away, it’s simply too important – and you can be sure that it remained high on the agenda of our pupils.
The pandemic highlighted sustainability issues and solutions that we can continue to harness as we move forward. Local/seasonal produce, food waste and deliveries immediately spring to mind. Local seasonal produce brings fresh, tasty ingredients, as well as sustainability benefits. And as communities work together to rebuild, there’s never been a better time to look local.
Food security also reared its head at the start of the pandemic (and then with Brexit) and hopefully got everyone thinking about getting the most out of ingredients. Pupils in our schools have really embraced our zero-waste dishes, including banana-skin, bacon and porridge pancakes. It just goes to show that with a little culinary creativity, delicious treats can come from the most unexpected places!
Finally, how often do you think about the number of deliveries you have and if they’re really all necessary? Over the past year, we pushed forward with a groundbreaking project that streamlined our logistics to maximise efficiencies and reduce carbon footprint. It really has been a case of small changes make big differences.