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Keeping the plates spinning

Keeping the plates spinning

Katie Woods, Catering Development Officer at Derbyshire County Council explains how her team has maintained its high standards in service delivery throughout the pandemic. 

2020 so far, has been a year that no-one will forget in a hurry. The fears and anxieties that the Coronavirus pandemic has brought to our communities will forever be imprinted on our minds as a crisis unlike any other witnessed and will be a story told to our children and grandchildren for many years to come.

18 March 202 was a truly historic day - the day when as a nation we were told that we must lockdown our county to stop the spread of the virus will become a day in history remembered by all. Businesses across the UK locked their doors, holidays were cancelled, and schools closed to all but a few.  

Probably the hardest burden to bear was the loneliness and social isolation experienced from not being able to meet with our families and friends. No one knew what the days ahead would bring, with each day being taken one step at a time in order to protect the ones we love.

Derbyshire has stood together throughout these dark days and embraced the challenges this pandemic has thrown at us and, if anything, it has shown us that community spirit is very much alive and well.

During the lockdown period Derbyshire County Council didn’t close any schools, few closed voluntarily, and in fact 98% were open. Knowing how important it was to feed as many pupils as possible, a hot meals service was provided in all schools which were open regardless of the number of pupils on school site. 

Pupils entitled to a Free School Meal but not attending school were not forgotten, they too received sustenance. It is with this group of potentially vulnerable pupils that our idea of food hampers was born.  

Prior to the Easter holidays the voucher system was still being developed, we were greatly troubled that vulnerable pupils would go hungry, so we created a two week food hamper to bridge the food gap for pupils eligible for Free School Meals. This didn’t come without its challenges as at the time some food items were scarce and our suppliers had difficulty locating some items. Nevertheless, these food hampers provided a much needed source of nutrition. The scheme was such a great success that it continued throughout the rest of the term and during the summer holidays. 

Of course, meals cannot be provided without a team of staff. To ensure their safety risk assessments were developed and, with no other way to deliver training than by telephone, a pop up training team was created and tasked with delivering this to our 1,500 workforce. To support this new way of working a suite of three working safely posters were produced for all kitchens (Scroll to the bottom of the page to download the posters). Reward stickers were given to pupils to reinforce good behaviour in a fun engaging way with messages such as “I’m following the 2-metre rule!” and “Expert hand washer”.

The menu was adapted to meet the dynamic requirements of each school on an individual basis. As more pupils of key workers were gradually accepted back into school we developed and introduced a set of “to go menus”, to be eaten in alternating dining environments such as classrooms, all of which were supported by the development of bespoke medical diet menus for pupils registered.

In answer to a plea for help, we gladly embraced new business from two schools which were let down by their current catering provider, with a consultancy based service. 

Our catering service is very unique in that we have our own Free School Meal Eligibility Checking department. They were overwhelmed with parents needing to register their children; eligible pupils increased by 8.6% from April to June alone which equates to 1,756 pupils. We are so proud to have been able to support these parents and carers ensuring that these additional pupils gained a meal but also pupil premium funding for the school to further support their education. 

Autumn Planning

The dynamic situation which has occurred due to COVID-19 is still at the fore and it is our duty to protect pupils where we can. As we start a new term, we are looking forward to welcoming more pupils into school and to delivering a service which meets schools ever changing requirements. 

In order to support our 327 primary schools, they have all been individually contacted to discuss how they would like their meal service to be delivered and offered a choice of the following menus:

•    Traditional school meals multi choice menu

•    Hot packed lunch 

•    Chilled packed lunch

The first option is our very popular school meals menu made up of traditional meals and children’s favourites. The second two options were developed specifically for COVID-19 and are designed to be transported to different dining situations and environments. Being mindful of our environmental impact on the use of disposables we try to discourage schools from going down this route, but we fully understand that this is sometimes the preferred method. Both menus are a temporary option for schools whilst allowing flexibility to adapt to school life post September. They all meet the School Food Standards and the Food for Life Served Here criteria which all our menus strictly conform to.

To reflect seasonality for after October half term, our traditional school meals menu will change as it usually does, we have prepared this menu and will provide schools the choice to take this up if they wish.

All of our 19 secondary schools have a different cafeteria style menu which suits their pupil’s tastes. Each headteacher has been consulted with and a new adapted COVID-19 service has been agreed and created. Changes made include additional service points and bespoke menu options for breakfast, break and the lunch service. 

We take our child welfare very seriously in Derbyshire. 1,400 medical diets have been created for all the new menu types. It has been a challenge trying to gather all the relevant medical diet forms from parents for the new September starters, to ensure that all pupils will receive a meal which meets their requirements on their first day back to school. 

A newly introduced for September, is for all staff serving meals to wear a visor. With the increased flow of traffic through the dining room, it will ensure staff feel safe but also pupils can still see their faces ensuring communication and good relationships are kept.

Our driving force is to keep on providing and serving tasty, nutritious food to pupils. For all our family of schools, the style of service has changed which means adapting the way our school kitchen teams work including new rotas and systems of working safely. To further increase staff safety our Risk Assessments have been extended to include vulnerable and BAME staff. To build on this, each member of staff identified as vulnerable or BAME have been contacted to see if they are comfortable to return to work and if they have any additional requirements to assist them back into work. We have found this a necessary step to ensure our staff are well looked after during these difficult circumstances. 

Contingency plans have been created for instances such as a local lock down. We have worked closely with our local suppliers ensuring there will be food provision available for pupils entitled to a “Free School Meal” in the form of food boxes. It is very important to us, to ensure that these potentially vulnerable children are not disadvantaged in any way and will receive food and nutrition they require if their school is closed. This decision was taken prior to the latest Government advice released on 28 August, specifying that food boxes would need to be provided for Free School Meal pupils. 

We are guaranteed to deliver on all our new menus as the Procurement team have worked very closely with suppliers and distributors to ensure that we have sufficient stocks of food to maintain the current menus without having issues such as low supply or generating surplus. 


We are incredibly proud to be part of Derbyshire County Council and in awe of all the work that has been achieved by our catering teams over the past couple of months. It has been an extremely challenging time for all involved. 

The future will not be a smooth ride, but as resourceful as ever, we will buckle down and ride out the storm, meeting each new challenge as it arises.

Katie Woods, (Nutritionist) recently spoke about the Catering Services response to COVID-19 in the APSE Soft Facilities Management “Resilience in school catering, cleaning and janitorial services” seminar on  28 July. Katie provided an overview of the trials and tribulations faced by the service from March to the present day. The presentation can be downloaded here.


Promoting excellence in public services

APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) is a not for profit unincorporated association working with over 300 councils throughout the UK. Promoting excellence in public services, APSE is the foremost specialist in local authority frontline services, hosting a network for frontline service providers in areas such as waste and refuse collection, parks and environmental services, cemeteries and crematorium, environmental health, leisure, school meals, cleaning, housing and building maintenance.






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