As National School Meals Week 2020 (NSMW) comes to an end Jeanette Orrey, co-founder of Food for Life and winner of the Lifetime Achievement honour at the Public Sector Catering Awards 2020, has praised school food caterers for their hard work which often goes unnoticed.
When the School Food Plan was written by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, John always spoke about the school food workforce being bigger than the Navy, with an estimated 60,000 school caterers. This is why I call them 'The Forgotten Army'.
When we went into national lockdown for the first time in March, many schools and school kitchens closed. Some remained opened for key workers, serving either a small number of hot lunches or packed lunches.
The Government introduced the national voucher scheme so that children on free school meals would still be provided for. This worked for many parents and carers who were able to buy from supermarkets, however, for those self-isolating or living in rural areas, it was not possible to go shopping – and even if they could, some supermarkets wouldn’t accept these vouchers.
Return to school
After many months we had a return to school for many. Talk of course turned to how the teachers were going to cope with all the risk assessments and additional measures needed. How were bubbles going to work? How many children would be in a bubble? How were they going to keep to social distancing, especially with Reception and Year 1 children? The list went on.
When all of this and much more was decided, school food became an afterthought. Some head teachers and senior leaders were excellent at this time and spoke to and worked with their caterers.
Many, unfortunately, did not. Even after nearly 20 years of Food for Life, we still see evidence that food and food education is not considered as part of the school day.
School meals staff, caterers and suppliers returned to work, but what did they return to? They really didn’t know. To say it was chaotic was an understatement! Were they serving hot, cold, nothing at all?
Risk assessments had to be carried out, PPE would have to be worn - but in a hot kitchen how safe would that be? Would there be enough social distancing for kitchen staff for all of them to come back to work? How would the bubbles work? Where were they going to deliver the food? What would happen if a whole bubble had to self-isolate? How many children would be in school? The list just went on and on.
But, as ever, the school meals catering teams across the country have just got on with it. Nothing has ever been said about how hard they work, or the children who for months only had a cold packed lunch if they were lucky, or those children going hungry…
Food parcels & nutritious hot meals
Many schools have had to send children and staff home to self-isolate and there is now an increase in food parcels going out to free schools meal children who are having to self-isolate. Yet the catering teams continue to deliver - never has school food been more important.
It is now November and we are in the second lockdown. Whole bubbles are being sent home: teachers, teaching assistants, catering staff, site staff and office staff are being sent home to self-isolate. After talking with different areas across the country, thankfully, because winter is upon us, more schools are going back to hot meals, but it is still very patchy.
All children need a hot, nutritious lunch and never more so than now. We have heard that children have forgotten how to use a knife and fork - something I have to say is not new - many families don’t have a table (I did a programme many years ago with Raymond Blanc on this subject).
Marcus Rashford has done much to further the agenda of food poverty, but we must now continue to build on that. For me, school meals and the catering teams across the country are there to deliver.
Never has the school kitchen been more needed. Let’s give a big shout out and thank you to the ‘Forgotten Army’.