How Sodexo is working to de-institutionalise school meals

School dinners have come a long way in the last few years, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s shake up and the introduction of the School Food Plan and School Food Standards – yet there is still a stigma and barriers attached to school meals.

Lunchtimes provide an important break in a busy day and pupils understandably feel frustrated when faced with bland food, long queues and an uninspiring, anti-social place to eat. Evidence shows that if pupils are engaged, and have ownership of the food they eat and the dining space, they are more relaxed, ready to learn and are likelier to make healthier choices.

At Sodexo, we have been working closely with children and young people to investigate barriers to choosing school meals, with the aim of encouraging more pupils to have a school meal and enjoy it in a fully inclusive social environment and dining experience.

This insight and engagement with pupils is vital to our new programme, giving young people a voice in how to improve their school dining experience.

We conducted independent market research, with pupils aged seven to 16, to gather feedback on our current school meals service and their dining experience. Here’s what we found:

  • Students want a food offer that mimics the dishes and serving styles of their favourite international cuisines and fast food restaurants, such as Nando’s and Wagamama.
  • There’s a real desire for more cosmopolitan and vibrant foods, varied ingredients and casual eating options, similar to the high street retailers young people eat at.
  • They want healthy food that can be consumed quickly, on the go, to maximise their free time – a key driver for their choice of grab-and-go.
  • Dishes which reflect modern eating trends have strong appeal, such as Mexican food and curries – although a lot of pupils want more spice!
  • There’s a significant grazing culture emerging, with students wanting food to be available in a convenient format throughout the day.

Insights show that children are adventurous when it comes to food, with 72% of children interested in trying food they have not had before. Young people are brand savvy and active consumers of high street food; one of the most popular brands that students named checked was Nando’s. This is encouraging for new product development, as world cuisines will introduce children to a wider range of ingredients and flavours.

Following the research, we therefore challenged our chefs to develop a food offer and dining experience for secondary school students that reflects the quality, style and presentation of these popular high street brands, such as Wagamamas and Chiquitos, whilst meeting the government mandatory standards for school food.

With that in mind, the brief to our culinary development team was to de-institutionalise school meals – create food that was fun, tasty, easy to grab-and-go, and to make it quicker and easier to get through the dreaded queues, with clear signposting about what’s on offer.

We also wanted to create an environment that was fun and bright, that would allow students to ‘own’ their space and provide sufficient respite from lessons and to feel safe.

If we can get more pupils eating school meals, rather than opting for less healthy options, we should see improved health and learning outcomes, and help close the nutrition and attainment gap.

The result is Food & Co by Sodexo, a bespoke and flexible modern school offer which will create a sense of excitement and engagement with the food served in schools.

The overall aim is for Food & Co by Sodexo to work in a similar way to a food court. The menu will be available to buy in biodegradable boxes, allowing pupils to take their lunch and eat it in a way that suits them. The branding design allows schools to select and create a dining environment that is tailored to their specialisms, ethos and school community. Pupils will be consulted with to choose and design their own space to create a fully inclusive social environment. Food counters, displays and dining areas are being transformed into spaces where pupils and staff want to eat, with chalk-effect menu boards, vinyl backdrops behind serveries, eye-catching hanging boards and posters.

It’s important we provide consistency and uniformity, so that parents are sure their children will get the food they are expecting that day. The Food & Co by Sodexo menu will rotate around various ‘acts’ rotated on a four-weekly cycle. Each day, for the main lunch service, schools will serve two of the ‘acts’, for example piri piri chicken and southern-style chicken. These will be served with a variety of sides such as coleslaw and sweetcorn, and a selection of sauces, and there will always be vegetarian options. A salad bar plus bread and fresh fruit will also be available.

Furthermore, Food & Co by Sodexo will not just be available at lunchtime. A breakfast offer with bacon baps, poached egg muffins and yoghurt pots will be available daily. We have also created a ‘deli pack’ grab bag which includes a sandwich / wrap or salad, a healthy dessert (e.g. jelly or fruit pot) and a drink (water or fruit juice).  These will be available to pre-order up to a week in advance and can be collected – and eaten – at the morning break. The deli-pack will be the price of a free school meal, providing greater flexibility. There will also be a selection of items, such as sandwiches, boxed salads, pasta pots, muffins, fruit pots, wraps and healthy cold drinks which can be purchased throughout the day.

Data from early trials is already indicating a significant increase in students choosing a school meal, and we’ve also slashed queuing times. Feedback from staff and students has been complimentary and the young people are thrilled to see their needs and requests are being met.

Food & Co doesn’t end there, however. As new modern eating trends develop and emerge, we’ll be continually engaging students with a programme called ‘Agents for Change’, making sure that the dining experience at their school is an inclusive and positive one to improve their quality of life.

Rosie Molinari is the public health marketing manager for schools of catering firm, Sodexo

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