Focus: Shared goals

Chartwells recently became the first school caterer to join Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Taskforce...

Chartwells recently joined the Child Food Poverty taskforce formed by Marcus Rashford MB to tackle child food poverty in the UK. It will now support the taskforce in its delivery of the National Food Strategy’s key policy recommendations. The move has seen free school meals being expanded to every child from a household on Universal Credit or equivalent, reaching an additional 1.5m seven to 16 year olds. Also, holiday provision will now support all children on free school meals, reaching an additional 1.1m children.

“Accessing food is a challenge for many families in the UK,” Charlie Brown, managing director of Chartwells, tells us. “We know that nutritious food sets children up for a healthy start in life, and there is a link between nutrition and educational and physical attainment. Ensuring children have access to a hot healthy meal at school is essential, but it is just a starting point. The Taskforce recognises this and works towards the delivery of the Strategy’s recommendations. We believe these objectives can make a huge difference to some families in the UK.”

Chartwells currently works with over 3,000 education establishments, including thousands of schools across the UK, to help students build strong bodies, sharp minds and lead long, healthy lives. It already provides nourishing meals created by its team of nutritionists, chefs and food ambassadors, delivering food education in the classroom. “As the first school caterer on board, our insights and networks in schools will be valuable,” says Brown. “We have expert nutritionists and chefs in our team who can help bring the recommendations to life in the best way possible.”

In 2018, Chartwells launched a dedicated health and wellbeing programme, Beyond the Chartwells Kitchen. As part of this there was a focus on holiday provision and since then the caterer has provided many children across the UK, including 13,000 in Lewisham alone, with meals during holidays; partnered with more than 30 charities to help support vulnerable children; reached 4,000 young people in school breaks with education and information; and trained around 70 holiday lunch club volunteers to help families in need. “We have been dedicated to addressing the issue of holiday provision for several years via the programme already,” says Brown. “Joining the Taskforce, and supporting with the expansion of holiday provision, continues the momentum of the work we have been doing anyway, which has provided many children across the UK with meals during holidays. This has put us in good stead for supporting wider activity this winter and in the future.”

The programme now has a suite of virtual resources that take into account current restrictions offering practical learning via The Super Yummy Kitchen YouTube channel, which was created during the nationwide Covid lockdown earlier this year, to help children and families utilise the cook along videos with entertaining and educational content. It has also introduced interactive sessions with nutritionists and chefs and webinars, as well as access to printable and online materials.

On Chartwells’ work with the campaign, Brown continues: “We will be working on the widening of access to school meals and holiday provision, setting up a model of best practice. We can use our insights to help structure the campaign and support communicating the message to hundreds of thousands of parents, both through our schools networks and our access to parents through other sectors within our business. We also work with public health teams to understand the demographics of an area and how best support can be provided.

“In addition to the free school meal provision, this winter we’ll be working with charities such as Kitchen Social and Transforming Lives for Good to donate thousands of hampers. They’ll be packed with food, to go directly to children, providing enough to make lunch every day for two weeks during the Christmas holidays.”

As impressive as all this activity undoubtedly is, Brown believes that caterers can still do even more to help prevent child poverty. “The free school meal system has provided essential support to thousands of families, but we need to make sure there aren’t people falling through the gaps,” he says. “A lot of parents don’t know if they are eligible for free school meals, so ensuring information is easy to access is important. It’s also about the nutritional value of the food and ensuring meals appeal to children.

“We’re hoping to collaborate with others in the industry. This is a landmark moment for school caterers, as it highlights the importance of the food we’re providing to children and acknowledges that many simply can’t thrive without it.”

Chartwells may have joined other big-name businesses – including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Deliveroo, FareShare, Food Foundation, Greggs, Heinz, Iceland, Lidl, Mars Food, Marks & Spencers, Morrisons, Nandos, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and Weetabix – on the Taskforce, but Brown would welcome even more expertise and support coming onboard. “I would love to see more organisations supporting the Taskforce, to help this critical work,” he says. “Throughout the pandemic, our industry has come together like never before, and it’s been great to share ideas to help us serve young people in the best way possible. This needs to continue now for the greater good of addressing these key issues.”

Looking to the future, Brown is keen to emphasise that Rashford’s incredible work so far shouldn’t be taken for granted and needs to be seen as merely the starting point, building to a long-term solution. “He has shone a much-needed spotlight on the issue of child food poverty, and he’s achieved a lot in a short space of time,” he says. “This winter, those who are eligible for free school meals will now be able to access meals over the holidays. This is a step in the right direction and something the Taskforce has been working towards. We now need to look at how families can be supported in the longer term.”