An insight into my day spent exploring the everyday life of those working in school canteens.
It’s 7.30am and the bright lights of the school canteen are bleaching my still waking up and weary-eyes. Tricia is already in full swing and preparing for tomorrows veggie lasagna. She’s been on the go since 6.30am, a time I’m not familiar with, let alone working at.
Having never worked in a kitchen, we begin with a tour and the low down of what life in a school canteen consists of. What instantly becomes clear, is I, and most of us not working in these environments, have completely underestimated the hard work, graft and skill that goes into running a school dinner operation. It could not be further from the perception of “sitting around, chatting dinner ladies, cooking food from the freezer”, as one of the chefs sums it up perfectly.
Each day 500+ dinners are served. Last week alone a total of 2642 meals were dished. That’s 10,000+ meals a month. An operation run and served by no more than a couple handfuls of people. With a budget of 191 hours a week it’s vital the team hit targets of serving at least 14 meals per hour. A factor outside of their control and perhaps missing many other elements other than the 45-minute service, but this meal-time target plays huge part in the human resources they’re allocated.
After getting my head around Tricia’s quick maths that I can’t keep up with, it’s obvious when walking around the kitchen, that not only are they running to a tight schedule, but they’re also tight on space, for this kitchen is equipped for 150, yet serves 300+ each day. Because space is so tight, they also work on an outsource model. External caterers a mile and half away provide the extra 200+ meals which are served over on the other side of the school by the on-site team.
The menu is diverse and changes weekly, and the majority is all done from scratch. We’re talking pizza bases for hundreds, made from scratch, thus completely debunking the myths of everything being ready-made and just needing to be heated up. The stock room is a chefs playground. Full top-to-bottom of base ingredients, fresh produce, huge jars of herbs and spices and 10 kilos of mayonnaise.
Initially I’m startled by the scale of everything and where on earth you’d would begin, and so I’m quickly starting to understand the complexity and the forward thinking skillset required to run this operation. I ask if doing things this way equals more time and pressure and Tricia responds with yes and no. It’s the way she prefers her kitchen to run and acknowledges where it’s good to get help such as sauces for some of the curries. It’s all down to being smart with the meal planning and Tricia and the team have that down to a tee, and so for them there’s no need to not be cooking from scratch the majority of the time.
I start my day off on the bread station, preparing countless bowls of various breads to accompany the children meals. Wrap after wrap and I’m still shocking at using clingfilm. Once finished up I make a start on the veggie wraps, testing my skills of wrapping a fajita properly. Next we get the salad station ready, full of fresh produce, couscous and salads.
Adding to the complexity and mammoth task of the prep we begin converting the two multi-functional spaces for lunch service. Our side has space for 110 at any given time and thus works on a quick turnaround, catering for 300+. Huge tables are shifted and laid out each and every day. I thought I was strong and nimble but in the time to sort out one of these enormous tables, Julie’s onto the fourth, serving as quite the reality check. I take a trip to the other side which relies on the food brought in from the external source. They’ve got the tables prepped, and are now setting up the hot-trays and pop-up serving stations.
Back over our side we start laying out the cutlery and cups only to find out that once complete one of the sterilisers is down, and so rapidly take back all the cutlery and need to layout the plastics. Tricia tells me this is where I’ll see the largest scales of waste as everything all goes into one bin, for they no longer have the resources to ensure the separation of food, recyclables and non-recyclables out in the dining room. Within the kitchen they’re meticulous about recycling, making sure even the smallest bit of sellotape comes of the cardboard and all food goes into the “pig big”. Unfortunately, the same is not true elsewhere.
Next we count out dinner trays; red for the younger years, blue for the older years coming in last. The kitchen team start getting the pass ready. Julie’s furiously washing up getting all of the preparation equipment out of the way and ready for the onslaught of trays that’ll be coming her way soon.
I have no idea what time it is, but services kicks in. A steady stream of 5 years old’s enter the room, giggling away, and so we begin. The pace picks up quickly and I get myself onto the dessert station. Ice cream after ice cream, fruit after fruit, yogurt after yogurt, cracker here and cracker there, the children are flying through. My hands are everywhere. Every so often a curious kid ponders whether to go for the bean wrap or bangers & mash, giving me a few seconds to replenish stocks and juggle around some boxes. Toffee yogurt is a popular choice, as is the fruit bowl, and they work their way through the crackers in no time.
The Big Clean
30 minutes fly by and before you know it we’re onto tidying up. A mass operation converting a food covered hall into a spotless hall ready for it’s next activity. The speed and pace of this team is incredible. By the end of service Julie has hand washed 352 plates, not including everything else that comes her way; a jist of how fast and demanding this role is. Most of the staff are here for a mere 2.5 hours and that’s to cover preparation, service and clean up. Let’s not forget the numbers being catered for as well as their age group, meaning this is no easy, or clean ride. The turnaround is phenomenal.
It is 2.30pm and I am left astounded at how the perception does not remotely match the outputs. It is exhausting and there is little time to stop and take a breath. What’s carried out here each and every weekday, is no different to other catering operations.
A Balancing Act
During the earlier preparation Tricia carries kilos of lamb out of the fridge to start preparing for tomorrows curry and I couldn’t help but wonder what the reception to the menus were. To me, what I see is a healthy, diverse and tasty menu, cooked from scratch and with a lot of choice. I think back to how adverse I was as a kid to different foods and if that’s an issue face. Tricia tells me wait and see what is left at the end of service and make my judgement.
And so I do; and although part of me is surprised, I’m also not. The salad bar is left virtually untouched, left destined for the bin. Tricia tells me today is a good day but really it’s a balancing act between serving diverse, healthier and more wholesome foods but also responding to what the children are and are not eating and the trends are clear and indicate that there’s still work to be done in getting children to be more receptive to things like fish korma and vegetarian dishes. And it’s hard, because I know how adverse I was until only a few years ago, let alone trying to engage 500+ children in any one service.
What have I learnt?
The answer regarding good intentions from the menu but solving the resistance to uptake, myself and the team wish we knew. It’s not as easy, as simply laying out things on the hot plates in a fast paced environment, because familiarity will aid in what you point out for. What I can see, is a detachment between those perhaps designing and instructing what goes onto the menu, to those on the ground who have feedback and knowledge about their customers behavior, and that a gap that needs closer attention. The approach needs to be multi-faceted, with initiatives that look outside of the lunch time sphere. Not only encompassing eating but the process of knowing and valuing food, as well as tolerance to trying new things.
The scales of avoidable waste are great, but the resources to do so are continually being stripped away. I admire Tricia’s stance on their kitchen being ruthless when it comes to waste and doing what they can and setting an example. The barriers they face in terms of the dining hall, on the surface seem trivial, but are actually a result of many factors, all of which are outside of their control. For those working within waste and in particular the food waste sphere, some attention should be re-directed to focus on large scale catering, and at that, schools in particular. All to often the attention is focused on making school dinners healthy and accessible but we must be careful to not overlook the issues of waste.
School dinners, at least how I remember them, have changed, and for the better. They are probably some of the greatest examples of teamwork you’ll have the pleasure of being in and amongst. For those working on the front-line everyday, they deserve far more credit for the incredible amount of work, both physically and mentally, that goes into their shifts and making sure people are fed. Not only are just feeding people but they’re friendly faces throughout the day with the best interest in people, who are hilarious to be around and I’m grateful for them opening the doors and letting me in, and I hope this insight into their world aids the amount of respect we have for those feeding children and staff every day.