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: