Responsible Business Recovery Forum Post-covid sustainability in education - September 24, 2020
- Jayne Jones, chair, ASSIST FM and commercial manager, commercial services, Argyll & Bute Council
- Julie Barker, no-executive director, College and University Business Officers (CUBO) association
- Amy Roberts, manager director, operations, Holroyd Howe
- Mark Davies, managing director, ISS
- Matt Garner, managing director, government schools, Sodexo UK & Ireland –
- Deborah Homshaw, managing director, CH&Co Education
- Lisa Priestley, business director for State School, Chartwells
- Caterers are innovating as restrictions and guidelines change; some work on sustainability has begun to slide.
- Schools differ in their approaches which has made managing supply chains extremely challenging.
- Less complicated menus are in favour but uptake of meals is down as many schools rely on less nutritious packed lunches. Hot dinners remain a priority.
- An increase in pre-ordering has helped alleviate food waste while in-class dining experiences have created a more relaxed lunchtime for those previously with multiple sittings.
- Caterers are keen to use this crisis to build back better; they are seeking recognition and guidance for a sector that has immense buying power. This will benefit children, society and the environment.
(School) food for thought
Covid-19 has exposed the already stark reality for those struggling to make ends meet:
- Over 2m children have been skipping meals during the pandemic and going hungry;
- Pre-covid, some 4.2m children were living in poverty – that’s nine in every class of 30 pupils and the “pandemic has made that worse”;
- 14% of families with children have suffered moderate or severe food shortages over past six months – in that class of 30 that’s another 4 children (pre-covid the figure was 11.5%).
Meanwhile, claims for universal credit have doubled. So too has the use of food banks. With the furlough scheme coming to an end (albeit with a less supportive alternative due to take its place) the situation around good food provision is “dire” for those most in need, attendees of the latest RBRF heard. Hungry children don’t learn but school caterers can “do something about that”.
“We need to focus on the key principles around why we provide good food in schools and we need to make sure we focus on food that is not only good for our children’s health but it’s also good for the economy and the environment.”
Back to school
Schools are open and lessons are being learned – fast. Covid-19 – now more than ever as guidelines and restrictions shift from day to day and place to place – has fundamentally changed how education caterers do what they do, as well as the services they provide. On the morning of the forum, news broke of nearly 200 new cases of covid-19 at Glasgow University.
“We love being back but probably didn’t think it was going to be this tough.”
Caterers – and their suppliers – have had to show unprecedented flexibility, not only in managing the new rules, but also in delivering what schools wanted. In China, schools were given a 256-page document outlining what they had to do in order to reopen. In the UK there are guidelines but they allow for divergent approaches.
“We got to a point where every school was doing something different.”
Where dinners are eaten, what menus look like and whether the food is hot or cold can all vary from site to site. Staff – in some cases after months off – have also come back to new cleaning regimes, social distancing rules, PPE to wear and a completely different food offer.
“All of these challenges have been presented to them straight away ... it has been overwhelming for many catering assistants, kitchen porters and chefs that have come back to work.”
Stand and deliver
But caterers have got on with the job, supporting staff, suppliers, schools and of course children and young people. Some talked of weekly Zoom meetings for staff so they could call in and raise any queries or concerns. Others have maintained menus from the spring term in order to ease staff – and pupils – back in.
Familiarity has offered comfort amid the chaos. Where once there was demand to offer more and more choice, now there is backing for slimmed-down menus (a trend also seen in the wider foodservice sector, and picked up in a previous forum).
“We are gaining traction with less complicated menus … actually going back to good food, cooked well and is great for the children.”
The challenges facing the supply chain as the foodservice and hospitality sector closed up have been well reported; less so the impact on those supplying into schools, colleges and universities. Some have been able to support suppliers throughout – as needs switched from business as usual to emergency food aid and (now) back again. This has offered resilience going forward.
Challenges emerge when schools have competing and conflicting demands of their catering suppliers.
“[Our suppliers] have been all over the place and we have struggled to help them know what kind of service, [and] at what volume, was happening at what time. We are desperately trying to get stability in a hugely volatile time.”
Those that deliver services to other sectors said discussions with colleagues had revealed school catering to be “probably the most uncertain”. Indeed, some sites were open for key workers, while others remained closed. Universities that grappled with international students stuck on campus at the start of lockdown are now facing spikes in cases as a new semester starts.
“You could say we have been innovating every time the government changes the rules on something.”
A decent (hot) dinner
There is little doubt life is anything but calm for these caterers. Demand for free school meals has soared in some areas, however school meal uptake is largely down. In Scotland uptake is currently 30% less than in March. Some are reporting declines of 50% or more. Those in England told of schools where demand had fallen 30%, while in others it was up 130%. Food waste is a major concern.
Hot food makes a notable difference: where packed lunches are on offer demand is down. Parents were said to be “fearful”. So too caterers. The impact of the packed lunch has multiple effects: it has lower uptake, higher costs and is less sustainable. What impact will this lack of hot, nutritious dinners have in the longer term – especially for the children who have not had hot meals during the summer? Is there a risk of negative outcomes for children’s nutrition? “Absolutely,” said one panellist.
Research earlier in the summer, albeit with a small group, showed children are eating fewer fruit and vegetables. They were also drinking more sugar-sweetened drinks. There is a desire to get back to feeding young people with hot food as quickly as possible.”
“All of us want children to have hot food now – especially as we enter the winter months. We are starting to get stats and case studies we can share.”
Like many other parts of the foodservice and hospitality sector, caterers in the education space have had to adapt. Technology has been embraced, through for example pre-ordering apps. This has helped balance supply and demand, reducing food waste. Schools previously frosty to the idea have also begun to embrace it.
“Children are used to [pre-ordering] through Deliveroo, so why wouldn’t we do it in schools too?”
There are challenges though, with older children generally less keen to plan a week’s worth of lunches in advance.
“Pre-ordering is not quite landing with some of older children as they’ve been used to getting what they want, when they want … ordering something they want when they are hungry. They want to make decisions in the here and now. That will cause challenges.”
For younger children, guided by parents, there is more appeal. Decisions on food can generate discussions about likes and dislikes, for example, as well as provenance. School food is of course about more than sustenance – it is about building relationships with food that could last a lifetime.
One positive reflection – supported by others – was that classroom dining has been working “really well”. There is no rush to move groups through a large dining hall; instead there is time to sit and take a more relaxed approach to lunch.
Could this be the case more widely? Could this period of social distancing and restrictions see the pre-covid grab-and-go culture in our society fade away?
“I wonder if there will be a moment once this settles and we look at it, [whether] people will want to sit down and be with people.”
Sustainability on the slide
That is the future. Here and now caterers are still fighting fires hour by hour.
There was an acceptance that sustainability had begun to slip. Some noted how efforts to reduce waste for example had been set back months as they were forced to bring in more disposables.
One particular pinch point is in the hot wash areas. In a school of 600, cleaning up all cutlery, bowls, plates and cups takes time and people; but if social distancing allows for only one person then single-use can make sense. One caterer said it bought 37% more disposables in September this year compared to the same month last. Schools are using different areas of the campus to feed children, which presents a challenge for separating and recycling waste.
“Schools aren’t set up to have food waste and recycling bins in multiple parts of the campus, so unfortunately all the good work our sustainability manager had in place was set back six months.”
There is however a drive to “get back going” (the pressure to deal with single-use packaging hasn’t gone away, neither has the need to cut food waste). Others talked of the paradox between demands for “portability, convenience and speed” as well as sustainability.
“We did some insight with young people and two key things they told us was they want something that’s quick, portable easy-to-eat and tasty. Ok, that’s grab and go. But they also want it really sustainable – ‘we don’t want any single-use packaging’. Ok, so how does that work? We’ve yet to come up with a real solution to that and we have to think about that.”
“I can’t see – in next six to twelve months – going back to traditional dining time with plated meal experience. We need the supply chain to catch up with us and come up with some options – it feels nothing has moved on in this space.”
How quickly sustainability schemes bounce back will depend on the schools. There was acknowledgement that these issues might not be front-of-mind for all teachers currently. They have enough on their plate, something speakers empathised with. It was concerning, however, to hear that in some cases catering services remained far down the list of priorities.
“While we think we are in charge, we are not. Some [schools have been] incredibly supportive, worked with us and adopted all the commercial guidance that’s been offered. Others have been ‘oh yes, catering … we forgot about that. We are no more important than a pack of highlighters. For my teams who care deeply about those kids that’s really challenging.”
School food welcomes the spotlight
Despite the stress and challenges of the here and now, caterers clearly recognise that the longer-term challenges – from child poverty and obesity to single-use packaging and less but better meat – have not gone away. Indeed, is there a better time to discuss the future of school food?
“We have a spotlight – the re-emergence of understanding of why good food is great for children. Let’s hopefully latch on to that; not just hearing the sentiment but acting on it in terms of government, in terms of policy and funding and commitment and leadership.”
There was certainly an appetite to turn what is an incredibly challenging period into action. The chance to talk about what the country wants from school food and, critically, the role that caterers play. The chance to turn a negative narrative into a positive one.
“Has covid given us all a wake-up call? [That] as a society we should be investing in nutrition of our children? It’s time to put good words and intention into action and move away from what is largely a commoditised market with a procurement approach that continues to drive a race to the bottom line … to actually do something meaningful that makes a contribution to the life chances of the young people that we serve.”
This is after all a sector that, as a whole, dwarfs the buying power of even the biggest high street chains. And yet it hasn’t packed a punch when it comes to the development of food policies. Maybe it will now?
“[In Scotland], there are 95 McDonald’s and 1,800 hotels. There are 2,500 schools with kitchens in them. And [yet] we are rarely part of the conversation [on] food and drink policy and the opportunity that public sector catering can provide. We should be much more vocal as an industry in making it clear what that spending power can do when it goes towards the public purse.”