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© ABsolutely Catering

An appetite for change

Helen Dorritt explores how changing the way your pupils eat and drink can affect the whole school

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 13, 2015 | Catering & hospitality

When you think of school food, what image comes to mind? Overcooked vegetables and lumpy mash? Warm bottles of milk handed out at break? Endless rounds of chips and fatty foods?

While the media portrayal of school dinners can still be negative (images of the turkey twizzler abound in newspaper archives), they have come a long way since Jamie Oliver’s crusade in 2005, and academies are playing a big part in this improvement in standards. From cashless EPOS systems to mealtimes becoming informal assemblies, the modern school dinner is unrecognisable from the stereotypes of yore. In fact, some meals don't look out of place in a high-end restaurant.

A holistic approach

The link between eating healthy food and performing successfully at schools is now well-documented. No longer just an add-on that isn't properly considered, the pivotal role that catering can play in the success of the school is recognised, and good catering provision can be an important part of an academy’s offering. “By adding value to the academy, the food can become part of the ‘sell’ when showcasing it to prospective pupils and parents,” says Sharon Linney, Operations Director for ABsolutely Catering, a UK-wide company which specialises in academic catering.

At the heart of improving meal standards across all of England’s schools is the School Food Plan, which was created in 2013 by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent to provide practical support and guidance to improve schools’ food offering. The idea is that better meal provision and food education lead to improvements in both academic performance and health. While academies and free schools created between 2010 and June 2014 aren’t required by law to sign up to the government’s school food standards which came about as a result of this, Myles Bremner, director of The School Food Plan, reports that many do follow it: “In fact, when Henry and John first researched the plan, some of the best food cultures they found – having a whole school approach, good food provision and education, and a strong attitude – were in academies.” If your academy hasn’t yet voluntarily committed to the plan, it’s well worth checking out as it’s full of useful ideas.

Please sir, can I have some more?

At the heart of improving catering provision is, of course, tasty food that children actually want to eat, and treating them as worthy of having decent meals is key. Woodham Academy in Durham brought its catering under the control of a manager with 20 years of experience in restaurants, who afforded students the same respect as customers. After she designed healthy menus with food that they actually wanted to eat, all made from scratch, take-up increased from 43% to 60% and is still rising, making school meals profitable for the first time.

“It’s a virtuous circle,” says Myles. “The more people who eat school meals, the better economy of scale there can be. There’s therefore more profit, which can be invested in even better food and facilities.”

There is much evidence to support the idea that good food improves the whole school, and Carshalton Boys Sports College in London is a shining example of this. When headteacher Simon Barber took over in 2004, only four per cent of students achieved five GCSEs at A*–C. Simon’s vision was that by making the canteen the centre of school life, it would have a positive affect on behaviour and attainment. And it worked. The introduction of decent school meals cooked by an experienced restaurant chef increased take-up from 20% to 80%. Breakfast is available for £1 and there are free curries for students who stay late.

In 2013, 100 per cent of students achieved five A*–C GCSEs, a stunning achievement.

“Good food makes my pupils happy, but also helps them work better,” reports Simon. “The culture and behaviour that begin in the canteen are responsible for an atmosphere that supports attainment across the whole school.”

More than just meals

How and where children eat their meals is very important as this can also create a step-change in improving attitudes. Reframing the way that lunchtime is viewed can provide a great way for your academy to come together and allow social interaction between different age groups and teachers, as well as encouraging the sharing of good manners. In the same way that Carshalton used this as an opportunity to create an atmosphere that influenced the whole school, Reach Academy in Feltham, southwest London is another good example of a focus on lunchtime creating a totally different atmosphere.

Students sit at mixed tables with teachers, and before eating, a short observation is made by a teacher about the food about to be served. Afterwards, another teacher thanks the cook on behalf of everyone. The academy describes meal times as having ‘a convivial atmosphere’, which ‘leads to relaxed chats’ between students and teachers.

“Many of the schools where we cater have undergone major redevelopments of their dining rooms in order to offer pupils a facility in which they want to eat,” reports Sharon. “This has helped entice older pupils to stay at school rather than going to the local shops.”

Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) technology is also becoming more prevalent. Investing in an EPOS system not only allows children to pre-order their food and then pay for it without cash, which can speed up the process if lunchtime is limited, but it can also have benefits for the school in terms of supply chain management and the budget. One example of a tailored academic system is Cypad, a company which offers tablet- and web-based solutions for school catering. Through a range of modules that are accessed securely via the cloud, schools can electronically manage all elements of the meal process. Students order the dish they want at the start of the day, which enables the kitchen to cook the correct amount of food. Meals can be paid for online, feedback can easily be given and collated, specific data such as uptake and cost per meal can be monitored, and parents can even check what their child has ordered.

Water water everywhere

As well as food, it’s also important to look at what students are drinking. School food standards state that schools must offer free drinking water at all times, and permits only water, milk, certain fruit juices, soya, rice and oat drinks, and tea, coffee and hot chocolate to be ordered on school premises, in order to control the amount of sugar and fat that children are consuming.

And again, while some academies aren’t obliged to follow these rules, there are numerous benefits to doing so. Being well hydrated with water has been shown in numerous studies to benefit physical and mental health, such as improving concentration and encouraging the body to understand thirst properly and not mistake it for hunger.

If you’re looking for ways to increase your students’ water intake, installing machines such as HydraChill refuelling stations are a good way to encourage them to drink more. HydraChill provides chilled, filtered mains- fed water to fill glasses or water bottles, and was developed in partnership with Water for Health to improve access to drinking water outside the home. As well as providing constant access to water, a machine such as this cuts down the amount of litter in a school and has a lower carbon footprint than a traditional drinks vending machine, and can also be branded with your academy’s logo and colours. They can also be used in an educational way, too: giving students familiarity with refilling containers, showcasing the health benefits of drinking water, promoting drinking tap water rather than bottled to reduce plastic usage and encouraging them to educate their peers with these messages. “Young people relate strongly to the free water and waste reduction principle when offered in a modern, hygienic and appealing format,” says Nick Davis, the founder of HydraChill.

An example of a HydraChill machine

“In one school where we installed a machine, the dynamic presentation of water via their machine meant the children could hardly believe it was tap water, which increased its appeal. The machine continues to blaze a trail.”

A HydraChill machine or similar can also be used in conjunction with a branded water bottle given out free to students,which will also cut down on the amount of single use plastic in your school. Take-up of school meals across England and Wales is at 43%, and some 20% of pupils leaving primary school are considered obese. Crucial to the success of improving school food provision is the headteacher. The School Food Plan states that: “The only person with the power to orchestrate [change] is the headteacher. They need support from theirgovernors and leadership team, but if the head isn’t behind changing the food culture in a school, it won’t happen.”

Once the need for change has been identified, finding a good caterer is an important part of the puzzle. “Schools should ensure their catering company is more than just a caterer by taking an active role in helping pupils to adopt a healthy eating lifestyle,” says Sharon. “A caterer should work closely with the academy at all times as well as offering new and innovative ideas in food development. They should offer value for money and ensure they are up to date with the latest developments in food and legislation requirements.”

If you’re looking to select a new caterer, national charity the Children’s Food Trust is able to help with advice on all elements of the tender, including the procurement process and legal requirements. Getting this right is vital, as it’s so much more than just feeding your pupils once a day, you’re feeding their future.

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