Catering for all tastes

Exciting options exist for ensuring that children at independent schools are fed and watered healthily and efficiently

If an army marches on its stomach, schoolchildren learn with theirs. Hunger pangs play havoc with paying attention in class or performing in the sports hall, so an all-encompassing catering operation is vital to academic and physical achievement. Extensive provision should cover the availability of breakfast, drinking water and the right kind of snacks beyond the core focus of the midday meal, while consideration should also be given to whether food is outsourced or produced in-house. Indeed, sometimes it is the pupils themselves doing the catering, making available food they have grown and raised on site.

A menu has to appeal aesthetically and be wide ranging, according to Derick Martin, co-founder and CEO of Innovate Services, partner to 85 school sites nationally. “From the food perspective, it has to look appetising and offer variety, whilst meeting nutritional guidelines. Importantly, it is also key to ensure plenty of choice – for example, to offer hot and cold ‘grab and go’ options for students looking to eat on the move and plated meals for those looking to sit in the restaurant. We serve stir fries made in front of students using a teppan grill, as well as freshly made pasta, daily salad bars, paninis, baguettes and more. We also focus on availability, so whether a student goes to the restaurant at the start or end of the break, they have access to a wide choice and are not limited to ‘what is left’.”

Spectacular results can be achieved if pupils are served quickly in attractive surroundings (which may remind them of time spent shopping). “To add to this, efficient systems need to be in place to ensure the flow of getting students in, providing an opportunity to browse and access the food they want as straightforwardly as possible. If queues occur, this could deter students from using the service. Finally, the environment itself is an important factor: there is no reason why a school’s dining area need be old-fashioned. You need to appeal to the young audience and create a space they enjoy using. We take influence and ideas from the retail sector, which students are used to using, creating somewhere which helps to attract more students, and offers enough space, chairs and areas where they can socialise and enjoy their food. Once we have addressed all these factors, we typically see the uptake double.”

One major catering consideration is the choice between outsourced and in-house operations. According to MYA Consulting’s consultant Daniel Blackstone, however, choice of one system does not preclude a change of mind and elements of both can be combined. “One of our clients, a small school in Surrey has gone from contractor to in-house, having preferred the personal route. Another, Guernsey Ladies’ College, has used MYA to ensure they have the modern standards of a contractor, but remain firmly with the values of in-house. They went live last September and invested a modest amount in refurbishing their catering facility. A third client, Wales’ Atlantic College, used MYA to administer a tendering procedure with handover to a contractor after being in-house for many years. They were looking for investment, but more importantly the community required careful consultation when appointing the contractor, as it is more than a contractual relationship in terms of satisfying catering needs. The college required a partner to become involved and influential over their term of engagement.” See ‘In-house or outsource?’panel for MYA Consulting’s pros and cons of outsourcing.

EcoPure Waters has been supplying water purification systems to the UK and international markets for over 20 years, and has been chosen by some of the country’s leading independent schools, including Eton College, Westminster School and Benenden School. See ‘Eau for Stowe’ panel for the benefits brought to Buckinghamshire’s Stowe School, for example.

Schools with scope to run their own smallholding may be interested in the example set at Bredon School near Tewkesbury. Farm manager Mike Tweddell presides over home-grown produce, some of which, such as eggs and vegetables, is used by pupils in the school’s catering and hospitality lessons. The farm is home to large white pedigree pigs and three flocks of lambs: Scottish blackface, Welsh mules and badger face. The best in class are shown at agricultural fairs with the children as their handlers, while the rest are sent to market, the proceeds from which are reinvested in the farm. A smaller proportion of meat is also retained by the school for sales to staff.

As television’s plethora of cookery shows confirms, we are becoming more discerning diners, which means that children approach catering provision with higher expectations. “If you have a coffee machine in a sixth-form common room, you will have pupils looking for a high-street experience,” says Jonathan Hilder, CEO of the Automatic Vending Association. “It is increasingly the case that vending machines can match the facilities found on the high street (in cafes and coffee shops) and therefore stop pupils leaving the school for their coffee.”

The specification of these machines is rising as consumers’ palates become more discerning. “Vending machines have become more technological in recent years, with some screens able to show the calories of some products sold,” says Hilder. “Scope exists for information in different languages for different ethnic groups, while on 13 December this year new allergy labelling regulations will come in. If a coffee machine incorporates non-prepacked ingredients such as whitener, you will have to tell the consumer if there is a possibility of an allergic reaction. Newer machines will have this capability.”

While vending machines can provide innovative solutions, care must be taken regarding the ingredients in products vended. “Vending machine have very flexible abilities,” Hilder continues.”Press reports sometimes refer to children coming to school not having eaten breakfast; vending machines can have cereal and milk in them so it’s very easy to make breakfast available. I have been taken to schools where the headmaster has proudly told me they have ‘gone healthy’ and replaced Mars Bars with flapjacks. If I take a flapjack from out of the machine, I show him it has twice the amount of sugar. There are a lot of misconceptions about healthy eating – a lemon poppy seed muffin from a high-street coffee emporium can have 561 calories – more than a Big Mac!”

The Healthy Vending Company was launched in 2008 by founder Toby Hanbury to promote food with no added sugar, artificial additives, colours or preservatives. Their offerings can also cover religious dietary requirements. “Our range of over 150 snacks and drinks enable us to produce a machine with a range of up to 40 or 50 different lines,” says Hanbury. “We source products with natural ingredients from across the UK marketplace, many of which are naturally free from gluten or dairy and are vegetarian or vegan and therefore qualify as kosher/halal on the basis that the ingredients are such, or they are certified.” See ‘Daily fed’ panel for details of the company’s cashless technology.

Less can easily be more, according to Jo Beach, creator of the portion-control brand Tasty Little Numbers. “We are seeing a huge demand from schools and their service providers to help them find solutions relating to a healthier lifestyle,” she says. “We are working closely with them, and vending machines serving tasty food in smaller portions is one option. Kids will always want to eat snacks and no one will ever stop them enjoying chocolate and crisps, but there are ways for them to eat less of them – it should never be a message of deprivation – that only works to make someone want more.”

The metaphorical carrot is effective. “We are working with international street artists to design the outer casings of our vending machine to create a visual experience, so children can be inspired by art as well as food and are doing the same with food trucks for campuses,” Beach says. “We have also set about creating fun challenges within independent schools such as pedometer challenges where the pupils that take the most steps during the week win a pair of trainers or tickets to a concert. We do not talk or lecture about ‘diets’ to children as this is not what healthy eating or the brand is about. Healthy eating when you are at school should be about balance, enjoying what you eat and the activities you do to achieve a healthy and fun lifestyle.”



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In-house or outsource?

When considering the option to outsource or become an in-house operation, it is important to carefully consider the community’s capacity for change. For change to occur, there must be an acceptance of the necessity and a will to accommodate new methods. It can be liberating for staff to feel the benefit of a contractor’s training, capital investment and an improved food offer. Discussions on tendering may actually galvanise the existing team. However, good intentions can be misunderstood as a condemnation of the current capabilities.

Education and inclusion is the key to achieving the desired result. A well-constructed, school-wide survey of viewpoints can be invaluable in steering your decision and satisfying the community. Setting clear objectives for your service will help your in- house team or contractor successfully deliver the vision.

There is no hard and fast rule for which method is ‘better’ – that depends on each institution’s circumstances.

The cost of change is heavily dependent on purchasing and labour allocation– if there is an agreed purchasing strategy, then in-house performance can match the procurement muscle of a contractor. If pupils are to feel the full benefit of a change, then scenarios must be specified and costed robustly.



Daily fed

The Healthy Vending Company is launching its prepaid vending machine card, offering extra payment options alongside the existing cashless methods using debit or credit cards via chip and pin, swipe or contactless systems in some of its machines. The facility allows parents to put credit onto their child’s card via an account in their name and set a daily allowance such as £1, £3 or £5. This not only ensures the child does not spend more than is wished daily, but also prevents a lost card being used all at once. A discount structure for university students can mean they receive £33 credit when £30 is applied.



Eau for Stowe

Finding the right balance between cost minimisation and satisfying the urgent demand for environmental sustainability is often perceived as a big conundrum in the catering industry. However, Stowe School in Buckinghamshire has proved there need not be a trade-off and has married the two, with the installation of an EcoPure water system.

EcoPure’s offering hinges on two key principles: sustainability and profitability. This seven-stage water filtration system connects to premises’ mains, providing unlimited freshly filtered and chilled still and sparkling water on demand, with a purity of taste and clarity that is unmatched.

“The installation of the EcoPure system has demonstrated our commitment to the environment and our financial savvy. We have already seen major cost savings – the need to buy in bottled water has all but disappeared,” says David Watts, deputy catering manager at Stowe School. “Our staff can produce as much water as is necessary, without the need to buy in financially and environmentally damaging water bottles. If we are holding an event, this can be well over 80 or 90 litres in a day.”

Indeed, Stowe School is not the only institution to see the benefits. In the UK alone, the systems are saving in excess of 10 millionsingle-trip bottles per annum. By removing the need to order, transport, store and dispose of bulk-bought bottled water, the EcoPure Waters filtration systems and multi-use recycled glass bottles not only save on money, but are 580 per cent less environmentally damaging than most branded water bottled waters.

But is the system easy to use? “Well, the ease of use was an initial concern, but our fears proved to be completely unfounded,” says Watts. “The system is extremely convenient and simple to use – our staff had absolutely no problem in getting to grips with it. Providing the amount of water we need takes no time at all.”

The benefits do not stop at environmental and financial savings. “We especially love the glass bottles that EcoPure have branded with our school logo. The bottles go down so well, they are a fantastic talking point. In fact, they are so popular they go walkabout from time to time – we are now looking into stocking them in the school shop.”

For further information on how EcoPure Waters can help save money and reduce your environmental impact, contact Karen Cripps, business development manager on or 01844 290088.


Article written by Simon Fry

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