Nourishing the future
Paul Fisher, director of education at Elior, explains why foodservice in the education market is so important
I first started operating in the education market a decade ago when Elior first looked at the sector as an area for growth. As the one and only dedicated resource in Elior for that unit it became apparent that there was much to do as there were – at that time – just three dominant contractors in the sector. It was a challenge to lead Elior’s development in a market that I felt a strong passion for as, I believe that the food that people eat has a direct result in how they turn out in later years. We also have a social responsibility to make sure that our youth is well prepared and nourished for the future.
To provide some background to my belief, I will share the following short story that encapsulated for me why the food service and experience provided should be of the very best quality.
My first experience of mass catering services as a customer was inauspicious. I originally trained to be a commercial trainee at a major international electronics company working at their factory in Wiltshire. I went to the canteen, which was managed by a contractor of high regard and who is still in business to this day. The main counter was a typical 1970’s creation and I selected a very ordinary meal. It lacked inspiration. I then asked for a cup of tea. The tea was forwarded in a very aggressive manner and without a saucer. Being the young man I was, I asked for a saucer to which the response was: “Where do you think you are? Butlins?”
The meal was poor and tasted of overcooked chips and I just felt that this dissatisfaction didn’t help with my work. It was not a pleasant experience at all.
I have recounted this initiation to the catering industry in the 1970’s many times and as life evolved and changed I found myself drawn into a career in the sector.
The education sector is a vibrant and progressive part of the food service sector. In the past, I believe that we suffered a number of body blows that were highlighted by Jamie Oliver. As a direct result, we all had an awakening that resulted in contractors gaining a reputation for poor standards of food quality and for providing the lowest common denominator. The main driver for this was that often contractors were asked to achieve unrealistic budgets for them to achieve their bottom line objectives.
Unfortunately, we were all tainted with the same brush and whilst there were some operators who this could be levelled at there were many that were not. I saw the opportunity to turn this poor perception around by selling ourselves on excellent food and at the same time providing realistic costs for schools.
Naturally this meant that not every school could afford this regime but perseverance overcame this in a lot of establishments and head teachers and governors began to realise the real benefits of how well-produced food could affect their pupils and students.
At the same time the new academies were being built and there were many academy heads that also had the same vision. In short the maxim was “if you feed people with great food, then they will perform better and respond to the teaching.” This was something that matched my passion for the industry and became my primary focus.
Great food, great service and a great experience
The provision of proper food for all pupils, students and indeed the teaching staff became my mission in life. I had an overwhelming desire to improve the reality of the food at schools and to really ensure that the perception of food service within schools was hugely improved. Healthy eating naturally forms a critical part of the dining experience in providing long chain carbohydrates, which are the very best for children, in that they provide a slow release of energy and crucially do not give an instant high that is associated with sugary foods.
Unfortunately for caterers, the “healthy eating message” is something that children will ignore just for the sake of it – so we aim to provide healthy eating in a hidden way and also slightly subversive with low key posters and healthy messages that will inspire children to swap meals for more healthy ones.
I was recently presenting to a school when I was informed that school meals just happen and there was the perception that it is not a particularly important part of school life. I can understand this from a teaching point of view however, when the food is poor and the service poor, both parents and children do notice. Children do not eat properly and they may resort to eating sweets and other foods that have personality changing properties and hype children up so that afternoon lessons become a challenge.
In addition, the reputation of the school is diminished and complaints come thick and fast. Catering in education establishments is invisible until it goes wrong then all hell breaks loose. Within the independent market that is the time when the school is forced to look at alternatives and the incumbent contractor, in 98% of the cases, will lose the contract.
Much has changed and evolved in recent times. We are far more knowledgeable about the importance of diet and food and this continues to grow and become more central to everyday life. The effects of proper food and the stability of offer has a profound effect on the pupils’ education. I am delighted to say that there are many schools and education authorities who do now recognise this and invest heavily in the infrastructure of the school to ensure that their caterer has all the ingredients to make a fantastic experience for the entire population of the school.
My philosophy of great food and great dining experience has now become a real passion and wherever I go I try to instil within the catering teams that the children not only are our future but that they also need proper food and respect and treatment. It is our role to raise the bar for what is delivered as best we can. It is our role to show leadership that does impact daily lives.
Paul Fisher is director for education at Elior. Paul has spent the past 38 years in the industry working across all markets and has spent the past 10 years in education.
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