Our Head of Development, Polly Praill, looks back on the lessons we’ve learned from working in school food during Covid – more than anything we’ve realised the vital importance of collaboration when it comes to change.

The pandemic forced us to turn our entire way of working on its head. We went from strategically supporting schools to transform their school food, to working on the frontline to ensure that children were able to access nutritious food while schools were closed. We couldn’t have done this without the support of so many incredible individuals and organisations. 

I strongly believe that effective collaboration is vital for any thriving organisation. Collaboration means an equal partnership, one of trust and transparency, where one organisation doesn’t benefit at the expense of the other. For Chefs in Schools, close collaboration with schools and funders has always been key to our success in transforming school food and providing food education. The pandemic enabled us to deepen these relationships but also opened up many new opportunities with funders, fellow charities, food businesses and restaurants.

Partnerships with funders and companies, essential for all charities, have enabled us to get to where we are today. We collaborate with mission-aligned organisations who share our passion for good food and want to give back. These partnerships are not just about money,  the funding is great, but it’s the other aspects which bring the partnership to life. For example, providing tastings for our school chefs, volunteering and donating produce to our food hampers. These activities enable funders to engage meaningfully with our work and avoid a power imbalance which is too often intrinsic to many funding partnerships.

The pandemic showed us just how important strong relationships are for effective collaboration in times of crisis. Our partners responded quickly to offer support. For example, from Rude Health, who encouraged hundreds of people around the country to flip pancakes and donate, to Belazu, who turned around a virtual dinner in a matter of days, calling on their partners to put together hampers for a huge cook-along where guests could spin pizzas with Pizza Pilgrims and make hummus with Ottolenghi. All of which raised thousands of pounds for our covid hamper scheme and in the process raised the spirits of hundreds of households during lockdown. The restaurant industry, hit so badly by the pandemic, were quick to come forward with offers of support. Hawksmoor seconded volunteers to launch our home delivery service whilst cooking thousands of meals for our hampers. Similarly Wahaca, who were there from the beginning and cooked over 6,000 meals for children during our programme. Our partnership with Mission Kitchen also enabled us to support local caterers who are still working with us today to keep feeding the most vulnerable families.

Crucially, the pandemic opened up opportunities for us to collaborate with other charities; an exercise which isn’t always straightforward in the sector. Often charities are overstretched and under-funded, so partnering with colleagues from the sector isn’t always a priority; deemed to be too challenging and more effort than it’s worth.

However, we can not tackle some of society’s most complex problems in isolation. The solutions are multi-faceted and a single organisation can’t claim to have all the answers. 

As a small charity, it is vital that we partner with other like-minded organisations to maximise our reach and impact during the pandemic in a cost-effective and sustainable way. Improving the outcomes for children and families at risk of food poverty, remained front and centre of our decision making. It’s all too easy to be led by other factors such as funding or media opportunities, so it’s important to always bring it back to our beneficiaries and their needs. 

Our partnership with School Food Matters, funded by Guys and St Thomas’ Charity, enabled us to scale up our covid response lunch hamper programme into Lambeth and Southwark schools, providing over 100,000 meals for children and their families. With a bigger team, School Food Matters took on the task of liaising with schools, managing their orders and we coordinated the delivery of the food. Troubleshooting was constant, and inevitable in crisis response mode, but knowing that a friendly colleague was on the end of the phone (probably far too much for their liking!) was a huge comfort during a stressful few months.  

Looking back on this astounding year, it is the partners who joined us on this journey, and the friends made along the way, which enabled us to triumph in the face of such adversity.