Learning Network

Children’s Food Trust

The trust has been running for 10 years. The challenge for this small organisation was in building relationships with a significant number of the 22,000 schools in England to fulfil its mission to improve children’s food in line with its simple and direct mission statement: “Eat better, do better.”

That’s why it turned to the UFI Charitable Trust in 2013 for funding to build a dynamic online presence to reach more schools and train staff involved with children’s food. “We decided to put all our knowledge and expertise around children's food both in schools and early-years settings into an online training package comprised of 15 courses,” explained Wendy Carter, the trust’s head of business development. “It’s for any school that wants to improve its food service.”

The trust was also responding to the challenge laid down by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to improve food, dining environments and customer service. “Dinner ladies and catering staff don't tend to get very much training,” said Wendy Carter. “Catering staff are often fairly low skilled and we wanted to make sure that they have the chance to develop in their profession and get the expertise they need to do their jobs properly."

“From our point of view as a charity, if they are trained properly they can play a pivotal role in helping children to eat well. We know the food on the plate is healthy but it's the dinner lady or school cook who is the person who will encourage the child to eat what's on the plate.

“The training is all about understanding nutrition, explaining the issues children are facing around food, and encouraging them to try new foods.”

The fact is that even children under five can develop new food behaviours that stay with them and support their education as well as their health. Hungry children can’t concentrate.

Creating the portal and the 15 training modules was relatively straightforward and successful. But the next step, reaching the schools and getting their buy-in was the challenge. Schools are very busy places and priorities like Ofsted or behaviour eclipse the need to train catering staff who could still fulfil their duties with or without training. And it’s not that schools don’t have the money or don’t want to pay; it’s the ‘how’ that’s the trick.

The key to the trust’s success was in linking up with two national schemes, the government’s programme for universal free school dinners and Tesco’s Eat Happy Club which sets up cooking clubs for children. It became the training partner for both a move that connected them with roughly a quarter of England’s schools, far more than the original target.

The cost, around £150 per learner, was not paid by the school but by the Government and Tesco. And the model also worked with local authorities that wanted to purchase online training for their nurseries, early-years educators and childminders. With that the priority shifted to delivering the training and making sure it was effective.

“I would say that cooking club leaders more likely to complete courses than catering staff,” said Wendy Carter. “They are worried about teaching kids to cook, and the safety and hygiene issues, but catering staff probably can do their job whether they take the course or not, even though they need to be aware of standards and regulations.”

In the beginning just one Children's Food Trust employee was tasked with learner engagement; now eight admin staff also keep a watchful eye. That’s because, as with most online services, the feedback data ensures that everyone is learning. The trust knows who is doing what and can tailor its services accordingly.

It also learns from its relationships to extend the training. Employees of school food suppliers are supposed to know about standards and regulations, but do they? Well a course from the trust, paid for by the employer can sort that out and, as a result, improve the firm’s effectiveness and standing. And that opens up another avenue.

The experience and confidence gained are what fire the trust’s own learning journey. It recently opened a new website and learning portal, updating the original platform.

Using the most up-do-date technology they can now ensure a smooth route for trainees. One email containing a link is virtually all that’s needed. What was a straightforward investment from Ufi to get the Children’s Food Trust learning online, opened a door to England’s schools and nurseries that was previously missing. And flexible marketing methods did the rest.

“The more people who access our courses the better trained they are,” added Wendy Carter, “and our messages are getting out there and, ultimately, food is being improved for children. More people are cooking, more people are eating healthier. Part of our strapline is ‘Eat better; do better’ so we are not just about making sure that children eat well for their health.

“If children are going to school hungry they are not going to learn, so we always link good food to attainment and helping children to fulfil their potential.”

The Children’s Food Trust's Learning Network is an e-learning facility for the children’s food workforce

Aimed at school cooks, caterers, early years childcare providers, local authority staff and others, it is a low cost membership scheme, with online courses and informative webcasts on topical children’s food issues. It makes Children's Food Trust's training and expertise accessible to a wide audience.