With schools now reopened to all pupils, how do you and your teams feel about children being back in school?
It’s been a challenging time but we’re so excited. We haven’t really closed at all – there are very few schools that actually closed their doors – but we were certainly not used to having 50 children instead of 500. There’s been a huge swell of enthusiasm for the teams on the ground. It’s lovely to have the children back and talking to them again, it brings everything back to life.
We do have to be mindful, though, because we’ve got children who are nervous, not about food but because they’re back in the school environment. But I think if the majority of children are happy, their peers will follow suit. We are embracing the fact that we’ve got the children back and we want to get back to the social side of eating.
What are your priorities now when it comes to catering for schoolchildren?
We’ve always talked about intrinsically nutritious food and that remains our key focus and priority. If you understand how to eat well, your physical health, mental health and lifelong relationship with food can improve. We’ve always talked about that but now we will talk about it even more.
Another key focus for us is safety, and that’s not just for the children, it’s also for our teams – the unsung army on the ground, in schools day in, day out. Our teams have had to learn new ways of working, while government directives have changed throughout the year. Individual schools now have more autonomy over how they want to embrace the safety measures and that means our teams have to be very agile. I have huge respect for what they do.
Sustainability is another priority. In September, we launched our green model for procurement. We have rolled it out throughout the state sector and now it’s coming to the independent sector. The model is a one-stop shop that allows everybody to get their orders together, saving thousands of miles and reducing carbon emissions. It’s akin to Amazon – where there’s lots of people going into one hub and then one van comes out. And that means you’ve got a good choice of products, good competition and local food – it’s a win-win.
You launched The Education Board at the end of February last year. How much of your work did you have to put on pause and what are your plans going forward?
It was tricky because you couldn’t start creating partnerships across schools because everyone was trying to do their own thing and keep people safe.
However, what it never stopped us doing was getting out the messaging, albeit virtually, and it pushed our core values to the fore. In the first lockdown we created ‘From the Kitchen’, taking our engagement work from the dining room into people’s homes and making it relevant, looking at what’s good for the community, the environment and for us individually.
Our partners embraced this fully because, in the world, it suddenly became all about the community. It was a great success. We then found ourselves in the third lockdown and we went up a gear with weekly editions and keeping up the specific information such as seasonal ingredients and supermarket swaps.
When we look at our three-year strategy, a lot of what we’ve been doing is part of it, the timings have just been tweaked. After Easter, when people get back to some sort of norm, we hope to form more partnerships.
With school food under the microscope at the moment, we have a real ability to affect change. We are having open and transparent conversations with each other and engaging with the government, and that’s a brilliant thing to have happened.
What lessons have you learned over the past year that will help and inform decisions going forward?
I think the ability to change very quickly is a huge lesson for everybody, as well as the ability to communicate rapidly and using technology.
I saw that in action before schools reopened in March as we did a Q&A on Teams with cooks, managers, the whole team. I thought, ‘We’ll be lucky if we get 40 people’, but we got over 200. We discussed health and safety, procurement, marketing, furlough and we had a lot of questions from the teams, which was brilliant. They asked if we could do it every six weeks, so we’ll be doing them every half-term moving forward.
When everyone went back in September, by and large, schools were down by as much as 45% in their uptake of meals. It’s been a different story this March and we over-achieved at over 100% uptake. I was flabbergasted. The change in people was phenomenal and I think the lesson of this was that you must show compassion and empathy towards people, and show them that there is a meaning for what we’re doing.
With some children anxious about the return to school, how big a role does food play in supporting young people’s wellbeing?
It plays a huge role. Food is a great leveller. It’s also the thing that brings us together as a community, as a family. Children have felt displaced, and food can give them that sense of belonging. If we can get them back to feeling part of that community in their schools, and really focus on the fact that it’s going to help them, then we move forward.
We want to regain the socialising aspect of eating, after all, it’s an event. It is a focal point of every single school day and it needs to come back as that, as soon as it is safe to do so.