‘It’s vital that the social aspect of eating returns’

Sponsored: Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent, talks about how they are determined to keep education catering moving forward

Q. When schools were forced to shut in March, how did you continue to support them?

We were determined to continue our work in partnership with all schools to inspire a lifelong love of good food for all regardless of the situation. So, for pupils and communities at schools that remained open to support key workers and vulnerable children, we maintained a catering provision in line with the physical distancing requirements.

We offered a flexible operation ranging from a full hot food offering in the dining room and grab and go options (by using areas such as a school gym) to individually wrapped packed lunches. To support the entire school community, we also created pop-up shops for people (school staff and parents) to be able to purchase essential items. Our role is so much more than serving nutritious food and we’ve consistently and enthusiastically coupled this with information, education and interaction through our award-winning Good Food Works initiative.

We also launched From the Kitchen, our weekly newsletter that took the important conversation around food from the school dining room into our pupils’ homes. Throughout lockdown, children and their families enjoyed a range of fun learning activities that inspired them to get cooking and build lifelong skills and confidence for all ages.

Q. Now that schools have reopened, what are your main goals this autumn term?

We’re still living and operating in uncertain times. It’s really important that our teams, pupils and school communities are looked after as well as they can be, including their mental wellbeing. A big goal is to ensure we help everyone with their own resilience as we navigate these uncertain times.

When it comes to catering, primarily our goal is to ensure we continue to deliver intrinsically nutritious meals allowing for adaptability and agility to do just that. Following the success of From the Kitchen throughout lockdown, we continue our positive messaging with our latest initiative’s focus being the importance of ‘making every mouthful count’ for continued wellbeing.

By being mindful of every mouthful, children and teenagers eating with us can be sure that they’re doing something positive for their physical health, the health of the planet and for their overall emotional and mental wellbeing too.

CH&CO Independent created pop-up shops for people to be able to purchase essential items during lockdown

Q. What are the biggest challenges you’re facing this term?

Throughout lockdown and as schools reopened, there have been challenges every step of the way and challenges that present themselves daily. This has included the ever-changing guidelines to localised lockdowns and the continual chance that team members may have to self-isolate at any time.

However, we have dealt with these through good communications with our clients and teams and implemented training whenever necessary to ensure our teams are fully equipped to cope with any challenges Covid-19 throws at us.

Social dining gives children more of a sense of belonging and community, which is so important for a young child’s wellbeing and development

Q. Do you think different challenges will come up over the next year or two?

I’d say for the foreseeable future we will continue to see daily numbers fluctuate due to local lockdowns as well as the recent increases in positive cases. We’ve also got to get through winter and be prepared that team members could also become sick.

Covid’s also not the only thing going on; Brexit has always been there but confined to the shadows for a while. As a wider business we continue to identify, monitor and mitigate potential risk areas, including a no-deal Brexit. We have to recognise that some Brexit events will be out of our control, and indeed Covid-19 itself may generate impacts our original plans did not consider.

Our chef teams working with our procurement and operations teams have developed ways in which we can continue to be agile and adapt at short notice. That’s about menu planning, supplier flexibility, seasonality and communicating every step of the way.

Q. With social distancing now a must in the dining hall, could the social aspect of eating at school be lost forever?

Within the hospitality sector we prefer to call it physical distancing for the very reason that the enjoyment of food should continue to remain a social activity, even at a distance. I really hope it won’t be lost forever.

The dining room is such an important part of school life and for pupils’ social development and wellbeing. By following physical distancing measures, staggering lunch times and using different parts of the school (where possible) we can still give pupils that social aspect of ‘eating together’ albeit at the required distance for now.

Q. How will the food change now – will there be more ‘grab and go’ options?

We spent lockdown and the summer months working very closely with clients to ensure our offer is tailored and right for their specific needs and unique environment – this will include meals that we can continue to serve from the dining room/gyms and lunches served in classroom bubbles.

As mentioned, it’s vital that, when we can, the social aspect of eating returns. Grab and go might work for an older age group but not for our young diners. Social dining gives children more of a sense of belonging and community, which is so important for a young child’s wellbeing and development.
I believe that there may be a swell of desire to eat together socially when this is done as people miss being with other people and ‘belonging’, no matter the age.

Q. What have you learned from the pandemic as an education caterer?

Technology is going to play an even bigger role as we move forward.  Virtual marketing and messaging are clearly going to have an increased presence. The pandemic shone a stronger spotlight on seasonally available produce and the importance of minimising food waste.

This has always been a priority for us when developing our zero waste initiatives and menus, and it is a positive outcome of the pandemic that this is now an even greater consideration – which is great news for the planet! Pre-Covid we were working towards a more effective and sustainable supply chain model and having now implemented it, it’s proved to be a Covid-safe solution too.

Strong relationships between schools, caterers and parents have never been so important; not just to ride out this storm but to remain agile, creating positive and meaningful support and opportunities for our pupils today and into the future.

CH&CO Independent will be discussing Nutrition and Wellbeing: New Solutions for Schools at IE Live on 4 November. Visit www.ie-today.co.uk/2020event for more details.

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