Foodservice Footprint can The schools turning canteens into community hubs Out of Home News Analysis

The schools turning canteens into community hubs

Future Foundations has an ambitious plan to scale its social canteen concept across the whole of the UK. School caterers will have a big role to play. By Nick Hughes.

Brightly coloured bunting criss-crosses the ceiling, catchy beats blast out of a stereo and the buzz of conversation reverberates around all four corners of the spacious hall. The scene could be set for a landmark birthday celebration or even a wedding, but the occasion is a community dinner and the location is the school canteen at Ark Burlington Danes Academy in west London.

The buzz is created by the 50 or so people attending the latest pilot of an initiative that aims to transform school canteens into community hubs by providing free, nutritious after-school food for young people and their families.

CanTeam, to give the initiative its official title, is the brainchild of Future Foundations, a social change organisation that has just been awarded £225,000 by the education charity Big Change to develop and scale the idea nationwide. Co-designed and delivered with students themselves, its aim is to create a sustainable solution to food insecurity, encouraging healthy eating and enabling young people to learn and thrive.

The scale of the ambition is huge with a mission to establish more CanTeams than there are branches of McDonald’s (currently numbering more than 1,400) across the UK by 2030. “There are 27,000 schools so there’s plenty of schools and kitchens that can be doing this,” says Future Foundations CEO Jonathan Harper.

Harper and his small team cannot do it alone – such a lofty target can only be achieved if Future Foundations builds a coalition of cross-sector partners able to support the delivery of CanTeam. That includes the business community, hence why Harper is talking to some of the education sector’s biggest catering companies to gauge their appetite for partnering on the rollout of CanTeam in a way that could enable the concept to scale quickly. “Rather than going to each school and seeing if they’ve got a catering company that can deliver the food [for CanTeam], we would go the other way whereby a catering company would offer it out to all of their schools,” he explains.

Pilot phase

To date, the focus for Future Foundations has been on establishing demand for the CanTeam concept and better understanding some of the operational challenges in delivering it. Having first piloted the concept at London’s Sunnyhill Primary School and Townley Grammar School in 2023, Harper has invited me to Burlington Danes to attend the latest in a series of extended pilots running throughout the first quarter of 2024, for which Ark, a multi-academy trust, has secured private funding.

A feature of the event is the near carnival atmosphere in the canteen, a tone set by the enthusiastic student volunteers dressed in canary yellow CanTeam branded t-shirts and aprons who register attendees at the door. Younger children scurry around the hall completing a quiz, while giant Jenga and karaoke have proved a popular source of entertainment at previous events.

I first visit the kitchen to find the school’s cheerful catering manager, Hemant, at the pass laying out the chicken and bean curry with rice, and butternut squash and tofu stew he and his team of chefs have prepared for tonight’s meal. Hemant says catering for CanTeam requires the kitchen team to stay on later than usual (they are paid for the additional hours worked) but it’s worth it. “I’ve really enjoyed doing it,” he says. “It gives me great pleasure to see so many happy faces.”

‘Pride battle’

The promise of a nutritious, hot meal is a key selling point – albeit far from the only one. The latest data from The Food Foundation’s food insecurity tracker found 8 million adults, representing 14.8% of UK households, experienced food insecurity in January 2024.

Burlington Danes is located in the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham between Shepherd’s Bush and Harlesden in an area of relatively high deprivation; around half of students are eligible for free school meals of which 30-40% qualify for the pupil premium.

One of the biggest challenges in generating interest in CanTeam has been countering a sense that people feel they are not in need of, or even deserving of, a free meal. Johnoi Josephs, associate assistant principal at Burlington Danes, has volunteered to help at all six CanTeam events held at the school so far. He explains how organisers have sought to address this “pride battle” by holding events at times when there are already people in the building, for example when a parents evening for a particular year group is taking place, thus giving parents the opportunity to have an informal conversation with a teacher they may otherwise rarely see.

“If you use the words ‘community kitchen’, people are already thinking to themselves, ‘I’ve got food at home’,” he says. “The spin on this is that you come here [as a parent or carer], you speak to members of staff who you wouldn’t normally speak to and you get real insight into your young person.”

Community focus

The number of people attending CanTeam has steadily increased over the six events that have been held at the school to date with the organisers keen to emphasise the community element as well as the food. “When we send out texts and emails [promoting the event] we always say three things: bring a container [to take away any surplus food], bring a neighbour and bring positive vibes,” says Josephs.

Those vibes are evident in speaking with some of the students. Florentino is here with a group of four friends who together have been to several CanTeam events. “It’s fun and the food is good (she’s chosen the chicken curry),” she says.

Often when they feel hungry after school, Florentino and her friends will visit one of the many local fast food outlets offering cheap, calorie dense but largely unhealthy food. CanTeam provides a nutritious alternative, a key principle of the initiative according to Harper. “There are two sides to this: one is that we can capture those young people who might not be having a hot, healthy meal at home, and then there are also those who are going to chicken shops and other places and buying unhealthy food after school.”

Alongside the ability to provide nutritious food to those who might otherwise go without, a key attraction for the school in holding CanTeam events is to cement its status at the heart of the local community. “We’re a community focused school and CanTeam gives people the opportunity to come into the school and actually experience what’s happening here,” says Josephs. “As you can see, there’s a lot of love and a lot of laughter.”

Elisa, a sixth form student at Burlington Danes and a CanTeam volunteer, says for her the social aspect is even more important than the food. “I grew up in an area where family is really important. From a young age I learned how important it is to be part of a bigger group and find your own people and your community.”

As well as students and their family members, staff including the school’s cleaners have attended previous events and the intention over time is to encourage more members of the community to take part regardless of their affiliation to the school.

Caterer collaboration

Harper is under no illusion about the size of the challenge in scaling CanTeam. The funding from Big Change will allow Future Foundations to cover the core costs of piloting the concept further but it won’t be anywhere near enough for the initiative to expand on the scale Harper wants. This requires the organisation to reduce its reliance on the goodwill of teachers and volunteer helpers and explore partnership and funding opportunities with the likes of catering companies and other public and private institutions (Harper says a number of catering companies are already “very interested” in the initiative).

Harper ultimately envisages a franchise-type model whereby schools and communities take ownership of CanTeam on the ground with Future Foundations acting as a central hub of knowledge, support and training. He also wants to explore the potential for a ‘pay as you can’ type model where attendees contribute towards some of the food costs if they are able to do so.

Harper’s vision extends to one day opening standalone CanTeams at the front of schools that are accessible to the community seven days a week and function in much the same way as a restaurant. “Schools are the place that everyone has to go to every day,” he says. “They could take on a much bigger role in society in the future.”

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