When it comes to educational catering, the single most important objective today is to increase uptake. Without that you are preaching to an empty church and any attempts to encourage healthier eating will founder because the students are buying their food elsewhere or are continuing to bring in their own packed – and not necessarily nutritionally balanced – lunches.
Recent research published by the School Food Trust has identified that for 2009-2010, an increase in meal uptake was witnessed compared to the previous 2008-2009 time period. It showed that take up of school lunches was at 41.4 per cent in primary schools and 35.8 per cent in secondary schools, representing a 2.1 per cent increase for primary schools and 0.8 per cent rise in the secondary sector. As small as this increase may sound, it still calculates to over 321,000 extra students choosing to have a school lunch.
This is all very positive news, although we believe the increases could be much more dramatic and that there are a number of ways in which this can be addressed, in order to dramatically increase student uptake. When we entered the school-catering sector five years ago, we began by going back to the very basics: we asked who our customers were and what they wanted from a school caterer. We then asked ourselves how best to serve 1000 students, efficiently in a 20-minute period. And so began a journey that we believe has rewritten the rules of school catering.
To start with, we believe the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ menu is misguided. Catering in schools has to accommodate a wide range of customers: from slight 11-year olds to strapping 18-year old rugby players. Many schools also have pupils from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, which needs to be taken into consideration.The dining experience
As a result, there firstly has to be a greater level of choice, better quality and improved availability. If you compare the dining experience to that of a retail environment, chances are you would not go back to a local delicatessen, for example, if they only served three variants of produce or the shelves were not fully stocked. The same needs to be considered when catering for school or college students – it needs to be appealing, offer variety and be easy for students to access within their typically short mid-morning or lunch time breaks.
We also believe that you cannot serve 1000 students in the average 20-60 minute break if you expect them to queue with a tray, from only one or two service points. The flow of getting students into the café or dining area, providing an opportunity to browse the range of options available, either self-serve or have a plated meal provided, and then to pay needs to be carefully thought through. Again from a retail perspective, if there was a lengthy queue or it took too long for you to obtain your meal and check-out, it would leave you with a negative view and you may think twice about visiting again in the future.Teenage customers
Another key factor is the environment. School canteens often appear drab, institutional and old-fashioned to their teenage customers. The area needs to be modernised in order to attract students back to school catering Only then is it possible to encourage them to eat more healthily and so we believe this is another important contributor to driving up student up take.
And probably the most vital consideration is the involvement of students in the entire process. By engaging with students to understand exactly what their views are, you are more likely to get their buy-in early on in the process of overhauling your menus and facilities. We often work in conjunction with student councils who are involved in a wide range of steps – from the design phase, through to internal marketing of the school’s facilities, and this engenders much support.Teenage customers
Ultimately, every single step in the operation needs to be re-engineered to ensure students can quickly access the wide range of freshly made food choices, housed in a modern and engaging environment that they will enjoy using every day.
Therefore, if you are planning to review your food offering and catering facilities, it is critical to consider all aspects: creating a welcoming environment that students will frequent, reconfigure kitchen equipment to ensure seamless food preparation, create multiple food stations and self-service points, introduce creative and healthy food options, as well as efficient till and cashless systems to effect high throughput.
By taking into consideration all these factors, it creates many knock-on benefits. Firstly, it’s a multi-purpose environment that can also be used for school functions, staff meetings and after school clubs. Students are proud of the new facilities, so uptake increases and more nutritionally balanced food is being consumed. Anecdotally, we also hear that it can boost student and staff morale, improves behaviour and attendance – with students even arriving early to benefit from breakfast options that are being served.
By implementing the changes outlined above, it is possible to double or even treble meal uptake, leading to students eating healthier meals more often, which is ultimately everyone’s main objective.A Case in Point – PimlicoAcademy:
In the autumn of 2009, a new £35 million building was constructed to provide a teaching and learning environment that underpins PimlicoAcademy’s mission of enabling students to fulfil their potential. Earlier that summer it was decided a new caterer should be appointed to bring the catering service up to date and create a state-of-the-art dining area that students could really enjoy.
Innovate Services focused on incorporating the very latest equipment into the kitchen and serving areas, including a new hot chute, which allows large quantities of hot ‘grab and go’ items such as hot wraps and paninis to be stored and displayed. A full range of hot meals, pasta pots, chilled baguettes, wraps, sandwiches, fresh salads and hot and cold drinks are also available, offering real choice. Eye-catching menu boards and signage have been installed to help attract more students into the dining area and ensure the food offer is well communicated.
Ken Robb, finance and operations director at the Academy confirms: “Since the new building launched, we have already seen the number of transactions
increase to an average of 1000 a day. We are receiving excellent feedback from students and staff regarding the new arrangements. The atmosphere, food and serving experience have all been highly praised since they launched; I have received much verbal feedback, plus emails from our governors complimenting the food, which is very positive.”Impressed by the buzz
It’s not just the increase in meal uptake that is noticeable at the academy: “If you were to visit the dining area during any lunchtime, you would be impressed by the buzz,” adds Ken. “In addition to the increase in students using the facilities, we also provide our staff with a free freshly-prepared lunchtime meal, plus hot drinks throughout the day. The team greatly value this incentive, plus it also enables them to sit among the students, creating a real family atmosphere.”
Overall, the launch of the new Academy at Pimlico has been a resounding success, with the dining hall now a real hub of the new building: “Everyone enjoys spending time here and the dining experience greatly adds to this. The catering team enjoy using the facilities and the new equipment really makes their jobs much easier, meaning the service is more organised and easier for them to manage. At Pimlico, we are fully committed to giving our students and staff the very best environment in which they can thrive, and this investment is testament to this.”
Derick Martin is CEO and co-founder of Innovate Services. Innovate, in partnership with school business managers, headteachers, staff and students, turns old, drab canteens into modern, vibrant multi-functional spaces that bring a new heart to
the school or college. It creates great food, which is healthy and importantly what students want to eat. Innovate gets rid of queues and massively expands choice and availability and the results speak for themselves, with many schools doubling or even trebling meal uptake.
For further information visit: www.innovateservices.com