Dozens of chefs and kitchen staff have stepped forward to cook for school children during the coronavirus crisis in an initiative led by Chefs In Schools co-founder Nicole Pisani.
School meals charity Chef In Schools, whose patrons include Prue Leith, Rosie Boycott and Yotam Ottolenghi, has turned its attention to provide vulnerable children and those of keyworkers with ongoing access to "hot, nutritious meals every school day" while schools are officially closed. In London, over 30 schools signed up on the first day to act as distribution centres.
Speaking to The Caterer on Thursday Pisani said: "We have the school kitchen teams who are the heroes, the original members, who are keeping this going and are being helped and guided by chefs from the restaurant industry."
Restaurant chefs involved include those from The Shed in Notting Hill and Ottolenghi, as well as Wahaca and Hawkesmoor. Pisani said that the model is "changing every day" and by next week they plan to roll out meal kits, such as bags of rice and herbs, in weekly crates for families, as well as ready-made pasta sauces, curry sauces and soups.
She said that the charity is working hand-in-hand with food-sharing and surplus-food charities and initiatives including Olio, The Felix Project and Magic Breakfast, as part of a huge network across London.
"It is such a silver lining to be part of with so many people offering their time and donations and even with transport systems by taking food from kitchens to freezers," she said.
Pisani continued that while nothing could have prepared them for what was happening right now, their focus was on providing healthy, nutritious food that would keep children strong. She that families had been loving the food and expressed her gratitude to all the school chefs who are keeping the initiative going.
Meals are prepared in school kitchen "hubs" and restaurant kitchens by chefs and other volunteers. As well as feeding children in schools, the service also distributes meals to vulnerable children at home who are not currently able to attend school.
In 2015 Pisani left Soho restaurant Nopi to retrain school cooks in Gayhurst Community Cooking School in Hackney using the restaurant brigade system, cooking everything from scratch including daily bread. She also oversaw the cooking curriculum, teaching children how to butcher whole chickens and cook over fire pits in the playground. Her work in Hackney became the model for Chefs in Schools and the charity now works to help other schools completely transform the standards of school food and food education.
The charity said it is working to keep school kitchens open where there are staffing shortages or catering firms are no longer able to provide a service. The kitchen teams are focusing on batch-baking food, such as vegetable lasagnes and soups, that can be frozen and distributed when needed. As well as children, vulnerable adults in need of a hot meal are also being helped.
Keeping vulnerable children fed and healthy has never been more crucial and the charity said that the need for free school meals "doesn't stop when schools close and more children than ever are in need now".
Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools, said: "Hot free school food plays a vital role in ensuring that hundreds of thousands of children receive a nutritious meal every day. It is vital we maintain this access to healthy food."
The charity is calling on chefs, suppliers and members of the public to donate time, skills, food or money - "whether it's £1 or £100" - to help "keep vulnerable children healthy during a tough period for everyone". They are also looking for donations of thermos boxes, food containers, food packaging and logistical support.
Details of how to get involved can be found on the Chef In Schools' website.