The managing director of education catering firm Chartwells speaks to Caroline Baldwin about joining Marcus Rashford's Child Food Poverty Task Force and the importance of providing free healthy meals for children over Christmas.
Why is the Child Food Poverty Task Force so important?
Accessing food is a challenge for many families in the UK. 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's just a starting point.
How is Chartwells involved?
In addition to offering our expertise in nutrition and food education, Chartwells will support the task force in its delivery of key policy recommendations of the National Food Strategy.
This includes the expansion of free school meals to every child from a household on Universal Credit or equivalent, reaching an additional 1.5 million seven- to 16 year-olds, as well as the expansion of holiday provision (food and activities) to support all children on free school meals, reaching an additional 1.1 million children.
What are the priorities in terms of the food provision for schools over the holidays?
Until now there was no provision for food over the holidays, except through charity schemes. Recognising the impact the Covid crisis has had on families, this Christmas those who are eligible for free school meals will be able to access them. This is great, but we need to look at how families can be supported in the longer term.
How does it work in practice? Will you deliver the food or will families go to schools to collect?
In most cases we are working with local authorities to understand their specific needs. Generally, we will deliver food hampers to schools and families will collect them. We also work with public health teams to understand the demographics of an area and how best support can be provided.
What changes are you planning for school meals going into 2021?
We have focused on three key areas – substantial and familiar food; plant-forward food; and weekly taster days, which focus on broadening the palates and knowledge of children's food.
We've just relaunched our menus after surveying more than 4,000 children and parents. We used this information to rewrite our menus with chef and Leon co-founder Allegra McEvedy and then taste-tested some of the recipes with over 1,000 children.
What needs to be done to combat child food poverty?
The free school meal system has provided essential support to thousands of families, but we need to make sure there aren't people who are falling through the gaps.
We need better identification and support for those most at need, ringfencing and promotion of school meals to financially support families and to nutritionally support children. Schools need more support to help them get children into the dining room.
What else have you been doing to maintain health and wellbeing for children?
We set up our Beyond the Chartwells Kitchen programme in 2018 to provide children across the UK with resources and education about health and wellbeing. Most commonly our chefs and nutritionists would go into schools and deliver interactive sessions, but we've moved to virtual lessons for now, and the take-up has still been high.
We also have our Super Yummy Kitchen channel, which was created during the nationwide Covid lockdown earlier this year in March. It provides cookalong videos with entertaining and educational content for children and their families.
What needs to be done to improve food provision for vulnerable children?
A lot of parents don't know if they are eligible for free school meals, so ensuring that this information is easy to access is important. It's also about the nutritional value of the food and ensuring that the dishes appeal to children – it has to be something that they want to eat.
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