A Sodexo employee handing out food to students at the lunch counter

How teaching experience supports school catering

About the author : Elizabeth Axon, Social Responsibility and Engagement Manager
Published on : 11/16/22
  • Elizabeth Axon is Sodexo’s newly recruited Social Responsibility and Engagement Manager for Oasis Community Learning (OCL), a portfolio of 52 primary and secondary academy schools across England.

    Here she talks about how her 20-year teaching career helped to prepare her for the role, and outlines some of the Sodexo engagement programmes on her agenda for the new academic year.

    There are a number of pressures and responsibilities that our schools, parents and pupils will be facing, and where our support as school meal providers will perhaps be more fundamental than ever.

    Elizabeth AxonThe cost-of-living crisis is dominating the headlines, school budgets are under intense pressure following energy price hikes and parents will be relying on schools to provide their children with meals that continue to be varied, value for money, tasty and nutritious.

    Having come to Sodexo in June 2022 following a 20-year teaching career, I understand the responsibilities well. I’ve been on the academic side and have seen the challenges first hand – the time pressure that school heads and staff are under, the need for a holistic approach to food that goes beyond a meal on a plate and advocates overall mental and physical health, and the importance of engaging with more parents about the benefits of a daily hot school meal.

    In many ways I feel like the last 20 years have led me to this role. Talking to the children and being totally in tune with their wants and needs was intrinsic to my teaching career. So when I saw the job description for Sodexo’s social responsibility and engagement manager position I really felt like it could have been written for me.

    Why did Sodexo invest in a role like this? It's hard to believe it’s almost 20 years since Jamie Oliver launched his school meals campaign and yet there is still work to be done to encourage more parents and pupils to see school meals as the fantastic, healthy option they are.

    Sodexo has already kick started a number of programmes, activities and initiatives across the OCL academies to boost engagement with pupils, parents, teaching staff and local communities, and they’ve created my new role to help maximise the impact we can have.

    One initiative that is already embedded and has huge further potential is our Agents for Change programme. This invites pupils to sit on an advisory panel and help Sodexo shape the improvements they want to see at their own school. Last year, the Agents took the lead in designing dining room makeovers at 49 academies. More than 600 pupils took part in fun, interactive workshops at their schools and designed food counters, tills and walls using Sodexo’s Food & Co brand toolkit. The spaces have been transformed with colourful graphics and the project has undoubtedly helped the pupils build a more positive relationship with school meals.

    It’s one of my top priorities to build on this network and tap into the imaginations of our Agents more often. The Sodexo OCL team has run tasting sessions on an ad-hoc basic, where pupils, staff and parents can try new dishes and flavours, and this is something we could expand with our Agents’ input.

    We know children have favourite foods that don’t always tick all the nutritional boxes – with their feedback for example, can we create a version that looks and tastes as good but is a healthier option?

    It’s all about generating the enthusiasm to try new things, something that we also do through regular food ‘theme’ days. These celebrate cultural, religious and social events – such as Diwali or the British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Eating week – and the country cuisines that go with them. We should encourage our pupils to make the link between food and their future and excite them about the joys it can bring in life, travelling to other countries and experiencing different tastes and cultures.

    Supporting heads and teaching staff is going to be another focus for me in the coming year. How can we ensure what we do adds value and doesn’t add to an already stressful workload? I would like to build more direct links with food technology departments across the academies and work together to provide content for the classroom around healthy food or sustainable meal choices.

    A recent trial across our secondary schools with partners Klimato encouraged young diners to think about the power they have to make climate conscious choices at mealtimes. Through CO2e labelling, pupils could see the impact of the meals they choose and how opting for low impact dishes more often can help minimise damage to the planet. This could have a much wider impact if we can work with teaching staff to dovetail it into the lesson plans.

    So I’m looking forward to seeing what we can achieve in partnership with OCL this academic year. It’s going to be a period with challenges, but also one of promise and opportunity.

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