Packed lunches, disposable plates and classroom dining

Covid-19 has forced Scotland’s caterers to adapt. But delivery of hot, nutritious food in a sustainable way remains possible despite the pandemic. David Burrows reports.

As the first back in after the summer holidays and a long period of lockdown, Scotland’s school caterers are the UK’s guinea pigs. “We get to make all the mistakes,” laughs Jayne Jones, commercial manager at Argyll and Bute Council and chairwoman of the Association of Facilities Managers (Assist FM), whose members include every Scottish local authority school meals provider.

Indeed, during a 30-minute chat in a “chaotic” week Jones is upbeat about the past few months, the lessons learned and the challenges ahead in the coming days and weeks. Delivering hot food to children is perhaps the biggest. “I’m hearing that [there will be] a short-term reliance on packed lunches,” explains Jones, adding that this can only be a quick fix given that a packed lunch “won’t cut it” in terms of meeting school food standards (which will be tightened further in April). The government has told caterers they need to comply.

Producing hot meals for a few hundred pupils within the space of an hour, on budget and in line with standards, is a big ask at the best of times. “We do well in Scotland but don’t shout about it,” says Jones, highlighting how 14 of the 32 local authorities have Soil Association food for life accreditation. But due to Covid-19 many schools will keep canteens closed to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, leaving caterers to deliver the meals to classrooms. There isn’t the budget to spend big on hot cupboards and trolleys but Jones is keen to see a return to hot, cooked-from-scratch meals, as soon as possible. Intake of fruit and vegetables has “dropped like a stone”, she explains. “We know some children may not have had a hot meal in [almost] five months.”

During that period, Assist’s members have been far from bored, supporting local efforts to ensure vulnerable people in the community and those shielding have received groceries.

The Scottish Government provided a £70m food fund, with money allocated to local authorities to deliver their own responses to the crisis. Many haven’t just delivered ambient staples. Local suppliers have provided fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products, with Jones noting “how resilient and dynamic” these businesses have proved to be. “People felt they were being really cared for,” says Jones, describing one local bakery in her area that had been able to bring a staff member back from furlough to help bake rolls for the community.

New opportunities have arisen too: premium Island Bakery Biscuits that are “traditionally way out of our price range” found their way into parcels. Jones feels that interest in local products has been enhanced by the pandemic. “When we put contracts out we chop them into small lots to engage with the local market. The focus isn’t always the bottom line.”

Looking ahead to this week Jones admits “some things will be different in the first few days. There will be some anxiety both from schools and parents.” Having had just a couple of days’ warning before lockdown, caterers will be keen to use up short-dated items in order to reduce food waste. Caterers are likely to stick with meals that were already up and running, which will help the supply chain and kitchen staff as they adapt to the new norm.

One area that could require careful handling is the use of single-use cutlery, plates and bowls in some schools. “It breaks my heart that in some cases we’ll have to use disposables,” says Jones. Assist’s guidance notes that caterers may consider “use of disposables rather than plates and cutlery for a limited period of time”. This is industry-led advice – Food Standards Scotland says the decision is up to the school – based on the practicalities of social distancing rather than any concerns over food safety or suggestions that single-use is safer, says Jones. “If we have to cope with social distancing in kitchens how can you cope with five or six hundred bowls and plates coming through the dishwasher? We can only put one person in there and it would take them hours. This is driven by social distancing requirements.”

One compostable packaging manufacturer told Footprint that “we are seeing an increased interest from schools who are increasingly turning to lunch boxes with disposables as a way to avoid gathering students at the canteen”. Jones says everything possible will be done to minimise waste and ensure disposables are recyclable or compostable. “The pressure will continue to get back to [reusables],” she explains, so any shifts to single-use will have to be carefully managed and communicated given the progress made to reduce single-use packaging in many schools already – and the way in which children have embraced new initiatives.

Those heading back to school this week face changes but caterers remain focused on the same goal: providing nutritious, hot food to staff and students. That might not happen straight away but Jones is “very keen” for normal service to be resumed “as quickly as possible”.

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