School resumes amid canteen concerns

 ROME – Schools may have reopened Monday for the first time since being forced to close in March due to the coronavirus lockdown but there’s a cloud hanging over canteen services.

 From cold meals and fear of price increases to low quality lunches and reduced staff, some schools may not offer catering at all for several weeks.

 As part of the 'new normal,' social distancing rules pose one of the greatest challenges during school mealtimes necessitating up to four canteen ‘shifts’ where students will be forced to scoff their meals quickly in order to make way for other hungry classmates.

 Others will offer pre-prepared lunch boxes in order to avoid mealtime chaos. This alternative will see students consume their lunches at their desks – a solution described as ‘extreme’ by Territorial Support Centres (CTS), an organization that enables integration of the disabled through new technologies.

 Given the lunch box option involves the delivery of pre-packaged meals to schools, unions fear this will result in the reduction of workers, as there will be fewer catering contractors required for meal preparation at school.

 There is also a concern that canteen staff will not have the same free access to serological tests guaranteed to teachers.

 In fact service sector trade unions have written to Rome mayor Virginia Raggi warning that, in the absence of personal protective equipment (PPE), staff will not set foot in the canteen.

 According to Maria Grazia Gabrielli, National Secretary of Filmcas Cgil, lunch boxes will have negative consequences on employment – "If you eat in class, sanitation must be done before and after the meal: who does it? The canteen staff or the janitors?

 “Not just that. The lunch box has an effect on the employment capacity of the canteens because the hours to be dedicated to the service are reduced. The preparation of the meal takes place outside the school and at that point a series of steps are not there. The effect is that of a reduction in workers."

 This is a sector that employs 39 thousand in addition to about 25 thousand cleaning and sanitizing workers.

 The national secretary of CISL Fisascat, Davide Guarini, shares the concern –  “The recovery of many canteens is uncertain. We hope that there will be no repercussions on the staff who have already had to live for months with social security nets.”

 Also of concern is the quality of food, which, in the case of the lunch box, could be served as a cold and unattractive single portion.

 Fees are also an issue. According to Cittadinanzattiva, a health advocacy group, the contributions of parents could increase if the government fails to offset an estimated 20 to 30 per cent overall increase in costs for businesses.

 Aside from the risk of food waste, there is also a fear that families will abandon the canteen service.

 "We are anxious because in many schools the service will start late or maybe it won't even start,” Adriana Bizzarri, head of the Cittadinanzattiva school sector said. “The lunch box, moreover, had to be a residual measure and instead it seems that in many institutions it is used for all classes.

“We have calculated that with single portions we would reach up to 50 per cent of discarded food and a plastic waste equal to eleven kilos per year for each child.

 “If, then, the fees increase we will have to deal with a parental exodus from the canteen.”

Many parents are already opting out of the service – the idea that children must have lunch sitting one meter apart and that, after the canteen, they cannot play with each other, has convinced many families not to enrol their children in the service.

 Sabina Calogero, mother and national coordinator of the canteen commissions, is concerned about the quality of the food – “We will have to deal with unique and cold dishes for the lunch box. It is clear that if the rates increase, many parents will choose the home meal option."

 What is certain is that the menu will change: catering companies are thinking of including more lasagne, fewer soups and bottled instead of carafes of water.