I Am a Fan of School Cafeterias – Renata Lukasova, Director, Čerstvá sváča, School Food Enthusiast

What does your kid’s school serve for lunch? So, what are your kids getting for lunch? Is it healthy? Fresh? Is it a well-prepared meal, or is it packed with too much sugar, preservatives and processed foods? Don’t know what the daily menu is? Don’t feel alone, not too many parents do. One person wants to bring her years of restaurant and catering experience to the schools of the Czech Republic and provide healthy, nutritious meals that are fresh and delicious. Renata Lukasova is that person, and she’s on a mission.

Renata Lukasova worked with Sanjiv Suri professionally for many years before he asked her to join him in Zátiší Group in the area of School meal catering, a position she held for over 10 years. She then joined the start-up Čerstvá Sváča (Fresh Snack) as Director.

Can you tell us a bit about school catering in the Czech Republic versus other countries? What’s good and what needs to change?
To me, the school cafeteria is not just about nutrition, it’s a place for ‘intentional collisions’, a space for food education, ecology and hygiene, social interaction and so much more.
In our public schools, different social groups meet in the cafeteria because, thanks to the state system, access to school lunch is equal for all children. While I see plenty of room for improvement, our current school food system is excellent and quite unique in the world.
The current system has been in operation since around the1950s. The first dietary standards came into being in 1963. Currently, about 1.7 million students eat in schools and parents only pay for the food cost, which gives them great value. Compared to the rest of the world, the system could be a model for many countries.
Every system, however well-run, needs to evolve and innovate over time, and so to should ours.

Why did you feel the need to get into this area of work? And what was the first experience like?
My first ‘taste’ of this side of the business was with the International School of Prague. At the time, I was working with the Zátiší group. Dr Arnie Bieber approached us in 2009 about improving school meals for kids. Zátiší is a high end, fine dining company and this was a different ball game for all of us.
When I started off ‘Fresh and Tasty’ for school meals, I could not find a good model to follow because it is a very unique challenge to properly cook for kids. Although there were existing big players in this area like Sodexo and Compass group, the offerings were dominated by packaged and processed food, and we wanted to use fresh ingredients.
While I was searching for a model, I found out that Jamie Oliver’s Revolution was happening in Prague. So I looked at different things that were available and very much liked the ‘Slow Food’ philosophy. So what it means is – you don’t look at just what you eat but how you eat. The environment of food is important. Eating together is important. How food is served is important. It all combines together.

What do you think about the cost of food that is available to kids in schools today?
The value of the meals at school is fantastic. Parents pay only for the food cost, the rest of the related costs is paid by other means, so Parents are saving a bundle for what they’re getting already! Generally, lunches cost around 30CZK, so the cost is very low. However, with just a few more crowns per day, we could make a huge change in the variety of fresh fruits & veggies, fresh fish, better meats and more.

Currently, the school meals in public schools are well balanced and affordable. More and more of them use fresh ingredients, and that’s a trend in the right direction. Many schools want to upgrade their cooking skills and adopt new cooking methods according to modern nutrition trends and that’s where we find our work most useful.
So, before you spend money for a lunch, look at the menu carefully, ask about the ingredients they use and look at the environment of the cafeteria. Being aware and engaged is the first step to a great lunch for your kids!

After working at the well known Zátiší group, you choose to join start-up Čerstvá Sváča. Tell me why.
I worked at Zátiší for 10 years where I built up their Fresh & Tasty Division of daily catering at schools and companies. We built that division from scratch, and I’m really proud of the work we did. It was in this role that I discovered I am more start-up person, so I decided to move on. The opportunity to work with Public Schools and to bring my experience to this new challenge really excited me. What can I say, I love working with the Public Schools!

What kind of advice can you give to parents when they order food for their kids or ask them to eat at school?
First of all, involve your child in the decision making. Don’t order food without an open dialogue about what they like or dislike and why.
Be active with the school and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Be engaged! A School’s cafeteria is the most unused room in a school – except during lunchtime. It’s my hope that the cafeteria will become a place that is open and accessible. School cafeterias are the ideal setting for teachers, administrators, parents and children to sit around, talk, rest, read and do countless other meaningful activities. Unfortunately, many schools don’t allow parents to even enter their school cafeterias during off hours.

From a broad view, we need to recognize that sometimes parents don’t get involved in the nutrition of their kids’ lunches, and at other times the schools don’t even allow their involvement. By getting more involved, I’d like to see a change in culture. It’s this behaviour that I feel that needs to change, and that’s a wonderful challenge to have!

To read more of Renata’s recommendations for school cafeteria meals, click here.