Terrible school lunches are have always been a source of jokes for kids. But for parents who are increasingly concerned about food hygiene and the impact of nutrition on learning and intelligence, what the cafeteria serves up is no longer a laughing matter. Along with questions about curriculum and facilities, parents are asking schools about the meals they provide: what ingredients are being used, how those ingredients are sourced, and what variety is on offer. And of course, about the biggest concern of all: food safety and hygiene.
Nutrition and learning go hand in hand, and this should shape the way in which school dinners are designed. A growing body of research evidences not only how the timing of meals and sleep influences learning but also how what our kids eat can either negatively or positively impact their cognitive development and abilities when in the classroom. Chef Ann Cooper, Director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley Unified School District in the United States, has spoken about revolutionizing the way kids eat at school. Local, sustainable, seasonal, and even educational food, she believes, is the way ahead for school dinners and better learning, “Each of us sends our kids or grandchildren, nieces or nephews to school and tells them to learn,” she said in a 2007 TED talk. “And when you feed kids bad food, that’s really what they’re learning.”
In a recent study published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, Rudolph Nager, Pat Monaghan, and Michael Fisher investigated the connection between poor nutrition in early life, compensatory growth, and learning ability in adulthood, and found that inadequate nutrition for young children can impair their neural development, leading to lower IQ.
To find out more about what can be achieved in transforming school meals, beijingkids spoke to Richard Craggs, entrepreneur and CEO of Nom Nom, about how he has helped to revolutionize school dinners in Shenzhen, and what questions parents should be keen to ask schools about food quality, nutrition, and hygiene in their canteens.
Craggs moved to China 12 years ago and spent his life savings on building a socially responsible business that would help improve the quality of canteen food in factories and schools. Starting off with two small loss-making restaurants, Craggs now owns the leading service provider of design-led and innovative cafeterias for international schools in the South of China. His philosophy is driven, not only by the voices of schools but by the parents and students themselves. “Listening and blending this into our expertise has helped design our recipe-managed menus that are constantly evolving,” he said.
The school menu design process for Craggs and his team always starts with the customers first: the parents and the kids. Parents are an important aspect of how they go about achieving eclectic and ever-evolving menus for their clients. Some parents have even been invited to share their home recipes with professional chefs in order to create meals that are already much loved and familiar with students. “Some of the best meals come from homes,” Craggs explained. “We always welcome new ideas. Our menus constantly rotate to prevent menu fatigue and evolve.”
Nom Nom’s menu design is also heavily reliant on an extended collaborative effort; one that includes customer feedback, nutritionists, and dieticians to formulate monthly meal plans. “It’s important to ensure ongoing recipe management to offer consistent new menu items, as well as our chef sharing ideas between all our kitchens,” Craggs said. This “boutique” approach is truly a bespoke way of approaching school dinners, and even among the biggest players such as Compass, Spexo, and Aramark, Nom Nom has created their own practices that differ from any other.
“We listen to the customer, be it the school, the parents, or the children, and customize a tailored solution… We never send out generic tenders or presentations, each one is meticulously detailed,” Craggs said.
Parents wanting to know more about how caterers operate within schools may wish to ask if their choice of school for their kids has followed the same stringent procurement processes as the ones on Craggs’s clientele list. Schools that are looking into catering options should be asking for proposals that cover areas such as food safety, hygiene, menus, and supply chains, among others. Is your child’s school conducting onsite visits with their chosen caterers? Are they sampling the food that ends up on your kids’ dinner plate? Are they ensuring that references are obtained to acquire a full and impartial opinion about the abilities, and standards of their prospective or existing school caterers?
With a number of food scandals having taken place in China in recent years, Craggs’s philosophy on school catering, and more, is an inspiration and requires that we as parents deeply reflect on how food can and should be more than just sustenance, but a way to “upgrade the lives of people.” Craggs believes wholeheartedly in what he does and sets exceptionally high standards. “I would say it’s all of our responsibility as caterers to work tirelessly to raise the current standards,” he said. “Food safety is paramount within our philosophy, in addition to hygiene, taste, fresh scratch-made meals, excitement, innovation, safe ingredient sourcing, and more. Food safety should be standard and without compromise.”
Cragg detailed the rigorous process he employs, concerning how ingredients are sourced. “We have a stringent supplier approval process and as CEO, I personally meet with every supplier and travel back up their supply chain to the farms to inspect the land, the government-approved licenses, testing certificates, and ingredients, with the support of our supply chain and quality teams. It’s this level of detail that consumers deserve.”
Nom Nom currently only operates in the south of China, but Craggs hopes to bring their services to Beijing schools soon.
“We have been fortunate to have been approached by international schools, parents, offices, and factories in Beijing,” he said. “However we have a holistic catering approach that involves cooking onsite, central kitchens, and food tech, as all three pieces combined justifies the investment and supports the cost structure of our other secret sauce departments. We will migrate once our model is complete in the South during the course of 2019.”
Craggs has been inspired by Britain’s celebrity chef turned school dinners activist Jamie Oliver, and continues to be a huge fan. Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign in 2005 garnered much praise and a mass following for his call to revamp and improve school dinners throughout the UK. He even managed to convince the British government to create the Children’s Food Trust. “I’m a huge fan of Jamie Oliver, his books, his shows, his war on sugar (even though I’m now paying more for a Kit Kat!)” Craggs said. “And of course his food revolution within UK schools. This in part, inspired me to work to upgrade food services within schools in China.”
Craggs has now himself become a source of inspiration, and “disrupting” an industry, he says, should be the goal for all modern-day entrepreneurs. “One piece of advice I would give to any aspiring entrepreneur is to be brave and fearless, as sometimes the world needs a determined and fresh set of eyes,” he told us.
So how can school caterers do better?
“Training and retraining with regards to food safety and hygiene, as well as regular random inspections from management, are key for success,” said Craggs. “China has experienced a number of food safety scandals, and most are greed driven, so we wish to support the Chinese government’s food safety policies, and together drive a change for good.”
Remember: if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Parents should be encouraged to understand the details of the catering process at their child’s school, from the supply chain to food safety, and to give their feedback.
As parents, we can very much be a part of the food revolution taking place in schools in China, just by asking the right questions. Get involved, and see if you can petition your kids’ school to involve you and your children in some of the decision making concerning their school dinners. Ask about their catering process, supply, hygiene, and nutrition. Be proactive in ensuring that nothing but the very best is being served in your kids’ school canteens. Craggs reminded us that we are lucky to be in China, where the diet is healthier than the one we might be used to in the West. “However, we do secretly blend vegetables into some of our sauces,” he said. “Just don’t tell the kids!”
This article first appeared in the beijingkids School Choice Guide 2019-2020
Photos: Adobe Creative Cloud, courtesy of Nom Nom