The impact of changing government restrictions for schools has been described as "chaotic" and taking their toll on catering staff, with further changes potentially being announced this evening.
Jeanette Orrey, co-founder of the Soil Association's Food for Life programme, which works with schools, nurseries and caterers, described the situation as "chaotic".
"We've got people who had done their ordering pre-Christmas and now some of the children are not coming in, some of the schools have closed, and so the impact on the school meal staff is not good," she said.
Just five days before schools were due to start the new term, the government announced that it would be pushing back the staggered return for secondary schools and colleges by one week, as well as for primary schools in areas with high numbers of coronavirus cases.
Face-to-face education for exam year groups is expected to restart from 11 January and all other students are due to return to schools on 18 January, while the return of university students, currently planned for the two-week period beginning 25 January, is being kept under review.
However, education unions have voiced safety concerns, with some local authorities arguing against reopening, and some primary schools remain closed. Scotland announced today that schools would remain closed until 1 February, while further restrictions are expected to be announced in England by the prime minister during a press conference tonight.
Orrey highlighted the impact on suppliers and producers, some of which are being propped up by the public sector while the wider hospitality industry is closed, as well as vulnerable children who depend on school meals: "What happens to those free school meal children if the schools are closed?"
However, she added: "The school meal service has risen to every single challenge and the school meal staff will rise to the occasion again. What we need is the guidance to do it."
Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&Co Education (pictured above), said: "While we'd love to be operating in a climate of certainty that hasn't been the reality for nearly a year now. We're well versed at being agile, as we proved throughout 2020, and we're in a good place to continue to support our clients and our people as restrictions change and ensure that pupils in school continue to receive nutritious meals."
She added: "It's important that the government listens to those within the education sector as timely and informed decisions are necessary to make appropriate arrangements from the classroom right through to the dining room. The government must consider the entire school community in their decision making, whether that be the caterers or the cleaners. Of course, we'll never see a child go hungry but delays, U-turns and untimely decision making are taking their toll across the board."
Andrew Wilkinson, chief executive, schools and universities, Sodexo UK and Ireland, said: "As we face school closures again, we are working hard to ensure we are providing the necessary support for school leaders, teaching staff, parents and pupils. Agility and flexibility are crucial and we are confident our hardworking teams will again adapt to the individual needs of each school and their families to ensure that children, particularly those reliant on free school meals, continue to receive a nutritious meal whether their school is open or closed.
"We will also continue to work with and support organisations such as FareShare, the Trussell Trust and Meals and More who are doing an amazing job helping the many families who continue to be negatively impacted by Covid-19."
A spokesperson for ISS said it had seen "some supply challenges" with short shelf-life produce due to the late notice on school closures, but that the situation remained "stable".
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