David Foad: What will school catering look like over the next few months as we come out of lockdown?
Charlie Brown: Changes will be gradual, there will be lots of collaboration with local authorities and other clients as we follow the Government pathway and make sure staff and pupils are feeling safe. We will be working closely with schools, but will need to stay agile to cope with the changes that will be needed. We will be carrying on with the daily calls with ops teams that we started during the lockdown, as it will be important to share learnings with team members and clients as the situation changes from dealing with the crisis.
DF: Do you think lockdown will have a lasting impact on school catering?
CB: Every school will be slightly different, but the aim will be to keep everything simple at the start, and reassure parents about social distancing. The service will include very simple hot orders, in dining halls if space allows, or perhaps with a classroom service, though it’ll be down to the logistics involved. The initial restart with primaries has been very ordered, but secondaries start to follow there will be more of a grab and go offer. We will see a variety of different approaches, such as staggered start times, use of outside spaces if the weather allows, and lunch bags. In our team sharing we had one school, for example, where the reception and Yr 1 children were fed sitting in hula hoops on the playing field – instant social distancing in a fun way!
DF: What have you and your team learnt over the last three months?
CB: We have 13,000 people in Chartwells, so communication at the centre of everything we do. When you have a crisis process in place, the temptation is often to reduce communication, but as schools have stayed open to look after the children of key workers, we have kept up communication – sometimes three calls a day – talking about food supply, staffing, share some of the great work our teams are doing. We started as the crisis unfolded and we have just kept things going. The other thing I would say is that we had just started to work with the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust as our charity when the lockdown began. There was a temptation to pause, but we decided it was important to keep as many things as possible going as it helps everyone retain some sense of normality. Another thing we did was when we saw that some schools were struggling to feed Free School Meals children, we set up Chartwells Can Help and stepped in to help – they didn’t have to be a client they just needed to sign up. We were even able to extend it to provide meals for vulnerable people in the community as well.
DF: How has your supply chain supported you over this time?
CB: We use the procurement team at Compass-owned Foodbuy, who have had to show great agility because we had so little notice of closure. And to manage to keep feeding the number of children entitled to free school meals we had to work with them over just a weekend to come up with them a new model to deliver food parcels to those children. They included ingredients for the children, with their parents, to make lunches. We have since evolved this offer, and we now have the ability for schools to continue to feed these children lunches and other meal times as well. We worked with the schools - some had a staggered collection period and in some schools the teachers delivered the food – but the key thing was that the food got to the right people. Due to the community spirit created in some schools there was also a requirement to help feed vulnerable people who had to stay at home and we also helped package up grocery items for those people as well.
DF: What has concerned your teams most about the safekeeping of both the children and themselves?
CB: The schools themselves have had very few children so social distancing has not been a major issue. For our staff at the start we set up a help desk to support school meals delivery and whatever else needed to happen, and they could use it to talk and get advice. Our HR team was on hand to quickly help or reassure anyone with concerns. We have also organised welfare calls on staff who are self-isolating, and we have run webinars for the teams on getting schools ready, safekeeping, risk assessment, things to be aware of, how to source certain items. In addition we have run a webinar for clients to share with them what we're doing, and we’re now looking at how we can share this with parents as well. Since some children started returning to schools we have had some parents coming in without children to see how things operate before they send their children back. More will start to return.
DF: Are you ready for a return to school?
CB: The pandemic has changed many people’s lives, from an industry perspective the collaboration between companies has been quite a nice thing to see. All of us have a burning to desire to do the right thing.
DF: How has Chartwells supported and communicated with its catering teams and school clients during the crisis?
CB: We use a cascade of daily calls, down to their teams and then back up with feedback. I should perhaps mention that I took on my new role only in January, but facing the pandemic has helped me get closer to the business a lot quicker than it might have been because of these calls.
DF: How are you managing your school meals service as we gradually return to normal?
CB: At the very start of the crisis, we started to talk to schools about how we can support them, which was important to me as I’m a dad of two primary school children. As a result, Chartwells launched Super Yummy Kitchen, which was set up by our culinary director who did some videos to help children cook with their parents. He started with snacks such as hummus and more and more people started viewing them and we have now expanded the concept to look at cooking more nutritious main meals with the view that parents will be sitting at home eating with their families more. We have shown these around the world and now have a network of chefs around the world who have contributed their own videos with recipes from their countries. It started because of the pandemic, but in the process we have added to how we can work to help children.
DF: Do you think children’s tastes and eating requirements will change post crisis?
CB: We started a piece of work just before the lockdown to engage with pupils to refine our menus to encourage greater take-up of cooked school meals. It was interrupted, but when the children come back it will be even more important. Our objective is to encourage school meal participation, so our menus must be healthy and nutritious, with children’s likes and dislikes taken into account. This means talking to pupils and parents and then refining the menu in line with school food requirements. It’s what I think Chartwells is about - meals need to be nutritious and healthy, and if we can get more children eating them it can play an important part in tackling obesity. It will also help school meal numbers recover. Over the last 12 months we have appointed some school food ambassadors to engage with parents and schools to find out how we can increase participation. This will continue, but maybe more by video than personal visits.
DF: Do you think public sector catering will return to normal more quickly than the rest of hospitality?
CB: Hospitality will have a gradual return, but the public sector will have a head start – hospitals and schools have continued, of course, and in all these different areas you need to reassure customers about their safety.
DF: Are you positive about the future of school meals?
CB: I am positive. This crisis has brought us all closer together. I think the delivery will change a bit, but schools will also be looking for stability. The technology part of our catering operations will grow – in kitchens and in our use of social media. There’s no home schooling has had an impact on children and things will be slightly different, but school meals will continue play a fundamental part in education.