From the moment a child steps foot inside a classroom to the day they graduate, everything they do and learn will have an impact on their life. During these vital years, schools have an important role to play, not only in helping support pupil decisions, but also in encouraging them to make the right choices and provide them with the best start in life.
Food is one element that can have a hugely beneficial impact on quality of life, and importantly is one area that schools can have great control over. From limiting the amount of sugar and salt in meals, to ensuring that every dish is nutritious, regulating what pupils eat can have a profound impact on their learning experience. The dining environment can also impact on eating habits and social skills – for example, children who have positive eating experiences at school are more likely to try a wider range of foods outside of the classroom. One way to promote this ethos is to ensure that every pupil has a hot nutritious school meal every day.
To encourage both school meal uptake and sign-up for Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM), Chartwell’s has introduced a new parent engagement team. Working alongside the Chartwells nutrition team, the new panel will be made up of over 20 engagement managers and food ambassadors who are each responsible for 50 schools each.
“The new food ambassadors started in September and they are gurus of our Chartwells food offer,” explains Meg. “They are knowledgeable on the benefits of a school meal versus a packed lunch from home and they are there to help parents understand the benefits of choosing school meals. Ultimately, they help to ensure that parents who are currently paying to make a packed lunch at home, know that it is possible to save money each week by signing up for their child to have free school meals.”
For lower income families, the guarantee that their child/children will receive a healthy school meal must be reassuring, especially when considering that each family can save up to £400 per child when they no longer have to fund packed lunches, that is if they can afford to send their child into school with any food at all.
The move for the new team of food ambassadors follows a pilot which was carried out by Chartwells last year. Over a seven-month period, 12 nutritionists, each looking after 11 schools, were tasked with driving the uptake of school meals. Over this time, the team helped drive uptake on average by 3%. This worked out as about 1,000 extra meals per day, so 1,000 fewer pupils were bringing a packed lunch and were therefore having a more balanced meal.
Like the pilot, the new food ambassadors have been tasked with driving meal uptake, and every month will be given clear objectives and focus areas to tackle. For example, in September, the goal was to get every pupil at the 750 schools to have a school meal. For children in Key Stage 1, the focus was to find out why some parents were still making their child a packed lunch when they could have a free meal.
“We carried out some research and realised that a lot of the parents who weren’t signing up for free school meals did so because their child was a fussy eater” points out Meg. “We have therefore looked into offering a sandwich option to provide more choice for the parents and their children.
The Chartwells’ packed lunch includes a choice of sandwich (including children’s favourites: cheddar, ham, egg or tuna), crudités, a piece of fruit, a yogurt and a bottle of water (although they are also looking at providing milk).
The lunch includes at least two portions of ‘five-a-day’ and the children even get the chance to have the pudding from the main menu, which has been made possible due to a 20% sugar reduction on all the primary desserts.
As the school year continues, the monthly themes and focus areas change; during December, for example, schools can hold seasonal theme days and festive fairs, so there are more opportunities to encourage parents to sign up to free school meals at this time of year. January, on the other hand, can be a challenge when most people feel the pinch after Christmas; however, for the food ambassadors, this actually presents an opportunity to highlight UIFSM to all those parents who are eligible for the scheme and hopefully encourage school meal uptake by highlighting the cost savings.
As the initiative progresses and schools and parents get to know their ambassadors, Chartwells hopes to continue growing its team until it eventually has enough food ambassadors to cover all 1,700 primary schools currently under the Chartwells umbrella.