Caroline Morgan, chief executive of Dorset-based Local Food Links, gives us her top tips for catering for children with special diets.
The Universal Infant Free School Meals programme is by its very definition for every child in state funded schools in reception, years One and Two. Yet there’s one particular challenge which is not only causing schools, caterers and local authorities a headache, but risking some children not getting the free meals they’re entitled to. And that challenge is provision for children with food allergies or who need special diets such as gluten free food. I know that with lots of forward planning and partnership working with suppliers, schools, parents and pupils, it’s still possible to deliver free school meals for all children.
Local Food Links Ltd are currently preparing and transporting over 3,000 school meals from 4 hub kitchens to 31 primary and middle schools. Here are our top tips for catering for children with special diets.
Cook from scratch: At Local Food Links we’ve devised a ‘half-termly menu’ which lasts six or seven weeks. All the meals are prepared from scratch, sourcing seasonal, high quality food from local suppliers. If you prepare all your meals from scratch you’ve got more control over the nutritional quality and what’s in each dish.
Speak to your suppliers: Make sure the information you hold on each ingredient is up-to-date. In preparation for the EU Allergen Regulations, Gillian Reynolds, my Catering Manager, was able to set up a spreadsheet listing all the ingredients in each dish. Gillian called every supplier to get the allergen information for every ingredient. We recorded allergen information, noting if the 14 allergens were present.
Communication is key: We prefer to speak to parents directly about their children’s dietary requirements. This is recorded on a special dietary requirements form, which has the name and allergy information of the child, and the contact details of the parent. Each hub kitchen and school has an up-to-date list of children with special dietary requirements. The information is shared with the office staff, the catering staff, the cooks serving the meals, and the midday supervisors. This ensures that everyone is fully aware of all aspects.
We’ve devised an online ordering system which is accessed by parents and school staff. Parents can order their child’s meals weekly, or for a whole half term. Ordering in advance helps make sure that each child has their preferred meal. The parents can check the ingredients of each dish by hovering over the name of each menu item, and then make an appropriate choice for their child’s dietary requirements.
Staff training is crucial: During the first week of December 2014, all members of staff received an internal training session on the forthcoming EU Allergen Regulations. The training made sure all staff were aware of the legal requirements, where to access up-to-date information and how to convey this to other members of staff within the school, parents and children. Each member of staff has completed a Food Standards Agency online training course on allergens, and each hub kitchen and school have received and are displaying Food Standards Agency posters. Training was also provided free of charge to school lunchtime staff.
Policies and procedures: Local Food Links provide a ‘transported school meal service’, parents order the meals in advance and every school receives a bespoke set of lunches. We plan for all eventualities. If the food order changes because of the weather, or if there’s a different cook or midday supervisor, there’s a checklist which anyone can follow.
Shared responsibility: Catering for children with special dietary requirements is a shared responsibility, between the caterer, the school and the parent. Some conditions can be life threatening. It’s so important that everyone involved is aware of their responsibility and plays their part in order to keep the child safe.
I hope these tips will help you deliver healthy, tasty meals to all children choosing school meals.
Caroline Morgan, chief executive of Dorset-based Local Food Links
Catering for allergies and special diets in your school
Caroline’s approach shows us how it’s possible to cater for allergies and special diets as part of your school meals service. We recommended that schools develop a policy and procedure to make sure that a request for a special diet is handled in an efficient and appropriate way. It’s good practice for these requirements to be written into any contracts that are developed with caterers. Catering providers and local authorities may already have policies and procedures in place.
For more information on UIFSM, catering for pupils with food allergies and other special dietary requirements visit: http://www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/schoolfoodplan/uifsm/special-diets