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Brooke Weston expands breakfast service for schoolchildren

22nd Jan 2024 - 04:00
An East Midlands multi-academy trust that trialled a school breakfast service has been so pleased with the results it is rolling it out to all its primaries. Theresa Jackson, head of catering at Brooke Weston explains more.

Q: Why did the Trust decide to introduce a breakfast service?

Theresa Jackson: We got approached about trialling the idea and the Brooke Foundation, which supports the trust, became very interested. We tried it at one primary school with a hot item or a cereal bar and the benefit was that attendance increased, teachers said there was better attention in class, and one parent, for example, said it ‘changed her life’ as she simply needed to get the children to school and not worry about feeding them first.

The children get excited about breakfast and there is a social aspect. We serve from 100 to 130 children a day – it’s available to everyone and there’s no need to book. It’s now gone into a second school and by Easter all six primaries will have the option. The Trust is funding it and our catering teams are very supportive and flexible enough to make it work. It’s so important that for the extra cost it’s worth it.

Q: Can you describe the catering service you operate across the trust?

TJ: We have 11 schools, five secondaries and six primaries, and the catering is all in-house. It’s great because I’m not looking to make a profit, just make enough to invest in new equipment and training when needed.

I talk to my suppliers, Brakes mainly for ambient and frozen goods, but local suppliers for the fresh food which we use to cook from scratch. It’s so important it’s a good meal, because it might be the only decent one the students get a day.

We run theme events, all the usual ones such as Chinese New Year, Diwali and we’re looking at introducing Eid, but also others such as Cultural Week or Day – when we ‘tour’ round Europe. This is all done in liaison with colleagues, teaching staff and parents and they go down really well.

We have a five-star rating with EHO’s and we value our staff and promote from within where we can. I will look at our staff and can often move people up all the way along, so in the end I’m only looking to bring in catering assistants. The trust offers every staff member five training days a year – that’s teachers, caterers, everyone. And Brakes, for example, offers a development day and we can use that for one of our training days. I might also get a catering assistant to work in another school for a day.

Each of our schools has a kitchen, though three have only small ones so they receive in prepped ingredients to make up the meals and cook them, and sometimes pies, for example, are made at other kitchens and just cooked off. Our chefs get joints from the butcher and cook them on roast dinner days, and we peel and roast all our own potatoes.

Our managers all meet monthly, sometimes in person, and we have a Teams call every Friday to catch up. We also have a What’s App group where we share pictures of what we’re doing, the food we’re cooking and these can go out on social media. The schools themselves will often share these too.

Q: Can you give us a few figures that provide a snapshot of the catering operation?

TJ: We have a team of 90 catering staff across the 11 schools and we serve 6,670 meals a day, plus more than 1,000 meals to teaching staff. Our secondary schools serve between 800 to 1,000 students a day.

Q: Are menus standardised across the portfolio and how much fresh food do you use?

TJ: We change our menus twice a year - at October and again at Easter - and use local, seasonal produce as much a possible. There are core menus for primaries and secondaries, but each school has their own preferences so there are always slight tweaks for each one.

At the moment we’re starting the Easter menu development process involving all the head chefs, the managers and student councils. We look for locally-sourced fresh produce from the butcher and bakery as well as fruit and vegetables, and we don’t simply want the cheapest. We’re very strict on labelling and put the nutritional value on the sandwiches we make, even though we legally don’t have to.

Q: Tell us about your approach to staff training and development?

TJ: We have a bit of staff turnover, but not a lot. Yes, recruitment can be a challenge, though not so much at the catering assistant level. Our staff do receive benefits - flexible hours, wellbeing days, EAP (employee assistance programme) support, any counselling they need, generous sick allowance, and personal development discussions for each staff member.

We keep up a constant conversation with staff members about their welfare. We are starting to get in some apprentices now for positions from commis chef up to manager level. And another idea we’re looking at is appealing directly to sixth formers at our schools who might want a career in catering.

Q: How has the service developed over the last five years?

TJ: When I came two years ago they were buying in sandwiches, using a mix of ready meals, and serving packaged goods like doughnuts alongside some home-baked items. I instigated making sandwiches again, building our own range and moving into wraps and baguettes as well. I think you can’t beat your own sandwich, so that’s what we’ve done and that’s gone down well.

The team was doing a good job, but Covid had pushed people into using boxed ingredients, so we’re moving out of that back to fresh now, which also helps us get rid of some of the packaging. I am very well supported by the board in all this.

Q: Has there been a strategic plan you’ve worked to?

TJ: We’ve been very focused on reducing our use of disposables, and aimed to be 100% free by Christmas in primaries. We’re also trying to get rid of them in secondaries as much as possible. I’m looking at growth, too, and want meal uptake to rise. Children don’t always take up means-tested Free School Meals and UIFSM, so we’re looking to see how we can change that.

We’ve also been working with our staff on minimising food waste, and separating it out from general waste. We also want to display the food attractively as well as serve it. So we’re looking at how we can improve the way it is presented.

Q: Can you tell us how you develop your menus?

TJ: The menus reflect the time of year - stews and warming dishes in the colder months and then lighter dishes and salads in summer. We want to build on the sort of food the pupils are looking for. When we develop any new dishes we make sure we get samples out to students to get their feedback and get them excited for the menu change. The staff get a bit excited too.

When we launched Teriyaki chicken bao buns the reaction was amazing, so we very much keep an eye on trends. We have tried meat-free Mondays, for example, but got lots of pushback from parents, so we stopped that, though there are always lots of good veggie and vegan options every day. We also cook plenty of gluten-free and dairy-free options too, making two versions of our lasagne, for instance, so no one has to miss out.

Q: The trust also operates a holiday provision. How did that start?

TJ: Brakes started Meals & More, which is now a charity, and we applied to them for a grant. That is topped up by us and we started last February at three primaries preparing 30 meals a day at a cost to families of £1 a head. As an example, we prepare a shepherd’s pie that they just need to reheat according to the simple instructions provided.

We send the menu home with children selected in advance by the school as among the most vulnerable – they know who the children are – and then the family makes their choices which are either delivered or collected. We served more than 3,000 meals over the last summer holidays, that is 120 children a day over six weeks.

To prepare the meals we get the secondary school teams involved in helping cooking and preparing the meals. In addition to the grant, we have some very supportive suppliers and some of them have been very helpful and understanding in donating ingredients.

Q: Food price inflation is a significant challenge for school caterers, how have you coped?

TJ: We raised meal prices in September by 10% after taking the hit on rising prices last year. We only pass on the increases we really have to because we know parents are struggling. I spoke to Brakes who helped us sort out some really good savings to help, and stay in regular contact with our butcher and fruit and veg supplier.

It’s about getting the balance right, constantly looking at prices, but our portion sizes have stayed the same and I’d rather change the dish than cut serving sizes. Our meal prices are now £2.64 in primaries, and £3.19 in secondaries for a main, dessert and a drink, or £2.64 without a drink. You can, of course, buy items individually.

Q: Looking to the future, can you tell us about plans and aspirations for Brooke Weston Trust catering?

TJ: I’d like to work with the local community to run cooking workshops for parents, showing them how to cook a few basic meals and what they can do with a simple bag of ingredients. We’re also developing the idea of student work placements, and I’m hoping to introduce that.

Written by
Edward Waddell