There is a national emergency currently stalking the land that is not receiving the attention it deserves. Childhood obesity and children showing signs of future illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes and the other ‘flagship’ symptoms related to poor nutrition and lack of exercise are mushrooming each and every day.

At Innovate, our primary job as school and college caterers is to reverse this concerning trend and to find solutions to the vexing problem of getting children to eat healthier meals regularly. But it is not as simple as putting a healthy, balanced meal in front of a child. There is a lot more that needs to be done.

Traditional school catering has been trapped in a timewarp and is generally failing. On average, less than one third of secondary students use school canteens.
Many students bring in packed lunches (often extremely unhealthy ones), buy junk food from local shops, or go without a meal during the day when they need to take in healthy food to supplement their concentration and overall wellbeing. Our own research among students shows that a large number spend the money given them by parents on sweets – typically a chocolate bar, bag of crisps and a can of fizz.

Traditional school caterers like to blame all of this on the government’s school meal regulations. But they are missing the point. The problem is more entrenched. One only has to ask students to understand why. This is a snapshot of what we have found that they say about traditional school catering:

  • The menu is boring and the food poorly presented.School canteens are drab, institutional and old-fashioned.

    Seating capacity is inadequate, leading to overcrowding even though only a minority of students use the facilities.

  • Queues are too long and service too slow and when you get to the end of the queue there is little left to choose from.
  • Opening hours are restricted.

Everyone loses in this situation. Students and staff simply cannot get what they, as customers, want, so many go without or look for unhealthier alternatives.

For the school it means that many students are not eating properly, leaving school premises, not arriving on time for lessons and have poor concentration. Furthermore school catering becomes unviable and needs a significant subsidy to continue even in its present form.

For all those interested in whether students are eating healthily it means that there is no adequate control and no monitoring and, for the caterer, it means that sales are low and falling, costs are rising disproportionately and any significant investment is impossible.

The single most important objective in school catering is to increase takeup. We have significantly increased takeup in every school we have gone into and, overall, achieve a level of takeup that is more than twice the national average.

This is only possible because a systemic transformation of the school catering model is implemented, specifically:

1. Food
A new menu must be created that offers greater choice, improved quality, better presentation and higher availability. We find that offering choices between plated hot meals or ‘grab and go’ pasta pots, panini or sandwiches works very well. Students like to have a menu that is more akin to the high street, rather than the ‘today-is-chicken-curry’ offer that may be typical of some school catering operations.

2. Environment
Take into account existing dining facilities and review how these could be redesigned into a more modern space where students will want to go and socialise. Students are used to going into modern retail coffee shops yet many schools expect them to sit in drab and often dated environments. Create a vibrant, contemporary space with attractive furniture, lighting and graphics. Use the students’ own artwork to make the area come alive.

3. Service
Students will not use school canteens if they have to queue for ages for sub-standard food. We recommend that a way to reduce queues and improve speed and throughput is by re-engineering the service delivery system: new counters, self-service, improved layout, intensive staff training and fast EPOS tills equipped with barcode scanners and, in many cases, cashless systems. All of these will improve service levels.

4. Partnership
Work in partnership with students to understand exactly what they want from their school meal experience. We use an online satisfaction survey to help us understand what students want to see in their school and work closely with the school community on recycling and fair trade projects as well as participating in curriculum work and school events.

Each of these elements must be in place to engage with the students and encourage the takeup of healthier school meals. We have seen some schools spend a small fortune investing in school catering infrastructure but what they do is build a new ‘old-style’ canteen with the same lack of choice, same operating methods, and the same service delivery system and culture. The result is that nothing changes.

Similarly, some schools have hired executive chefs and work hard to improve the food on offer. But with outdated counters they can’t maintain the quality of the food or hold it in sufficient quantities and, with old service systems, the queues remain in place. So even if the students enjoy the food they don’t return because they can’t be bothered to queue, especially if the food is likely to run out.

We can break this vicious circle, but only by changing the four key elements – food, environment, service and partnership – will this successfully happen.

Derick Martin is CEO of the school catering company Innovate Services