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The new face of the school canteen: reassurance and diligence in a post-covid world

The summer holidays are over, lockdown restrictions are no more, and children are once again back at school.

Children have had to adapt in more ways than one, and school is no exception. For the academic year 2021/2022, we are expected to see a number of changes among school canteens and the catering services they offer to children.

Here, Kirstie Jones, environmental health expert at leading food safety consultancy Navitas Safety, explains the changes that we can expect to see this school year and urges school and college management teams to do more in order to remain compliant.

A recent report has found that there are an astonishing 97 Schools, Colleges and Universities serving food at below hygienic standards across the UK. With Greater London and the North West hit with the worst offenders as rated by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in June 2021.

With over 30,000 schools in the UK, all must focus more vigilantly on health, safety and risk mitigation to contain the spread of not only the coronavirus but to effectively manage cross-contamination risk, allergen labelling and food hygiene standards.  

Because of this, the traditional school canteen as we know it, is quite possibly about to change forever. Gone are the days of handing over loose change to the kitchen staff and having a relatively small menu to choose from as we emerge further into a world fuelled by technology. And school, college and university managers must ensure that they are doing all they can to provide a safe and secure environment.

Now, children and parents alike are much more educated on the foods available to us. In today’s world, we have access to advanced technology, and thus, people are much more aware of their intolerances and allergies. So, whilst this is a key thing for schools to consider upon their return, they must also provide reassurance to both the children and their parents and not to mention, for themselves and their reputation.

With that in mind, combined with the soon-to-be introduced Natasha’s Law, we expect to see a wider variety of foods offered to children across the UK.

Reports show that one in ten children between the ages of 8-16 are now vegetarian or vegan, and schools have a duty under the law to ensure reasonable changes are made for children with specific dietary requirements – and the same goes for those with allergies and intolerances.

So, not only are schools tasked with adapting to new safety measures as we enter a post-covid world, but they must do so whilst remaining diligent about health and dietary requirements.

Canteens and kitchens are naturally recognised by close physical proximity and could therefore pose a risk to children and staff if not correctly monitored, and so, providing much-needed reassurance can be a difficult task in hand, especially if schools continue to use paper-based methods.

However, along with the continuation of one-way systems, social distanced-queues, and hand sanitising stations, schools should introduce automated, digital systems to the way in which they handle and serve food.

After thousands of Food Standards Agency (FSA) food hygiene ratings have been analysed across the worst hit regions of the UK, it has been discovered that food provided by schools, colleges and universities, isn’t quite up to hygienic and safe standards. In fact, they are serving food at below the hygienic standards across the UK, with just a 0-2 rating and it is simply, unacceptable.

With that in mind, combined with parent reassurance, efficiency and time saving as the focus for schools moving forwards, the only way to tackle all three collectively and appropriately, is via digital food safety technology and systems.

Whilst this will contribute to saving hours of manual work, it can also help to minimise human error when it comes to temperature and cross-contamination, which will further mitigate the risk of allergic reaction and food poisoning – something that schools, colleges and universities should all aspire to be doing.

For school and college managers, a digital food safety system can save them an average of 21 hours a month, and can also allow schools to manage their menus more efficiently, as well as providing them with the ability to log any dietary requirements, ensuring that they cater for everybody and every need.

Pre-ordering meals and dishes will also provide schools with more time and will limit the amount of waste produced.

By supplying parents and/or students with the opportunity to choose from a limited menu at the end of the week in preparation for the week ahead, this will ensure kitchen staff cook and prepare the right amounts, reducing waste and therefore contributing positively to UK sustainability efforts. And finally, it allows children to make more conscious food choices.

Aids that schools can utilise could include ‘free-from’ menus, the use of images and symbols or even integration with digital systems, whereby when a child scans their thumb to purchase a lunch, any allergies they have can be flagged up and their tray cross-checked by a supervisor as a final safety measure.

This inevitably provides parents and caregivers with much-needed reassurance, however it also reassures the likes of school and college management teams, and catering management, too. By incorporating digital technology and systems into the workplace, such teams can be rest assured everybody will receive food to the highest of standards, which will also create a feeling of security as well as brand protection through the avoidance of allergic reactions and cross-contamination.

In an ideal world, there would be one chosen method that is implemented consistently to avoid instances of inaccuracy, potential harm and risk of infection due to coronavirus. While we wait for this universal solution, for now, it is up to school leaders to take the issue further and do what they can to protect the children in their care.

In doing so, this will give parents the positive reassurance they need, putting their minds at ease that their children are being fed in a controlled, safe and hygienic manner, whilst improving the currently disappointing UK food safety and hygiene standards.

Following on from the numerous healthy food campaigns that regularly appear in our day-to-day lives, including the famous Jamie Oliver campaign, schools are still tasked with supplying healthy and nutritious foods for children to enjoy.

With so much to consider, schools and the wider food industry have no choice but to adapt, and must alter their services in order to adhere to these new and unfamiliar circumstances.

To find out more about Navitas Safety, or to book a demo of its digital food safety system, please visit: https://www.navitas.eu.com/digital-food-safety/

A commitment to focus on sustainability in food supply for 2021 and beyond

Mike Meek, Procurement Director from allmanhall, the family run independently owned food procurement expert, looks at how the food supply chain can become more sustainable at a time when the planet is at a tipping point.

 

The 2020s have been termed the ‘critical decade’ for sustainable development implementation. While the topic can be overwhelming and riddled with confusing information, what is clear is that we need to collectively improve our understanding of sustainable food systems and identify actions that we can all put in place to make a difference.

 

Food and agricultural systems contribute significantly towards environmental damage, with much of this damage threatening to destabilise future global food and agriculture systems. Every step of the food supply chain accounts for the release of greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating climate change. Meanwhile, the conversion of land for agriculture tends to mean a further reduction of biodiversity. As we move towards planetary tipping points, the human race is presenting substantial and mounting challenges on food systems. Global warming is disrupting agricultural productivity, whilst a decline in both pollinators and increases in pests and disease are reducing crop yields. Water supplies for irrigation are also becoming more scarce, and soil fertility is deteriorating.

 

Climate change presents significant threats to global food security. Despite alarming possibilities, there is still time to act, with the UN warning we have ten years left to avert catastrophe and prevent irreversible planetary damage. The 2020s have been termed the ‘critical decade’ for sustainable development implementation.

 

What is a sustainable food system?

 

“A sustainable food system is a system which delivers food security and nutrition in a way that the environmental, social and economic bases of delivering food security will not be compromised in future. Food must thus be profitable throughout, provide broad benefits for society, and have a neutral or positive impact on the environment.”

  1. Nguyen, 2018

 

Currently most food policy aimed around mitigating climate change focuses on reducing CO2 emissions within transport and energy, and eating locally. Whilst policy changes in these areas is essential, it can be short-sighted often overlooking other vital emissions within the food sector, such as deforestation, fertilisers and storage. To gain better insight, we must first fully understand where and to what degree greenhouse gas emissions are released within each level of the supply chain. There are three key areas where emissions should be considered to ensure a full understanding: agricultural emissions; supply chain emissions; consumption and waste.

 

Meat consumption

 

At the very beginning of the food supply chain is agriculture. Different foods require different quantities of land, with animal products being a key driver of land-use change over the past 50 years. Increasing populations and protein diets places strain on land-use demands. Global meat consumption has quadrupled since 1965. Livestock presents a convergence of sustainability issues. However, livestock still has a place within sustainable food systems, bringing a range of nutritional benefits and potentially aiding carbon sequestration (where grazing is managed effectively). The production of meat can also make efficient utilisation of pastures otherwise unsuitable for crop growth. However, we should remember that livestock are still increasingly being fed unsustainably on dedicated feed crops. Certain meats are also environmentally ‘worse’, than others. Globally, beef accounts for almost 60% of the planet’s agricultural land use, despite only accounting for 24% of global meat consumption and 2% of overall global calorie consumption. Beef has the most considerable land requirements and highest emissions.

 

Global estimates of emissions by species

 

  1. This includes emissions attributed to edible products and to other goods and services, such as draught power and wool. Beef cattle produce meat and non-edible outputs. Dairy cattle produce milk and meat as well as non-edible outputs.

 

Source: http://www.fao.org

 

While a sustainable food supply won’t be achieved by a reduction in meat consumption alone, it is certainly a good place to start and something that can be turned into a very tangible goal by consumers and those working in the foodservice sector, alike.