SCHOOL may be out for the foreseeable future, but, thanks to the efforts of a major Shannon food plant, school meals will now be delivered to the doors of families who need them most.
Freshtoday, which had a staff of more than 30 in Shannon, was forced to cut around two-thirds of its local workforce when school closures were announced in response to the Covid-19 crisis. The company, which employs up to 240 staff nationwide, has now begun to hire some of its workers back to ensure that households in need are provided for.
“As soon as schools closed, we knew that the demand from families and schools to supply food would be staggering”, said Tony Mulcahy, Managing Director of Freshtoday Clare. “We immediately set about implementing an alternative delivery method and ensuring that we could meet demand. We are pleased to say that we can offer a fortnightly delivery of groceries for each child, ensuring children have all the basics they need to stay home, safe and fed during this time.”
The initiative, which is overseen by the Department of Education, will mean that 250,000 children at DEIS schools receive food packs in place of the lunches they would previously have gotten. Packs will be delivered fortnightly by An Post.
Mr Mulcahy, a former Fine Gael senator and well-known chef and catering professional, told The Champion he was delighted the company is in a position to make a contribution during the public health emergency. “I know from my contacts with school principals and school management that they do a fantastic job, not just in the classroom, but in terms of supporting families,” he noted. “Principals in both primary and secondary schools regularly tell me about the difference that proper nutrition makes to kids. Now, since the crisis happened, principals tell me they have been contacted by several households where both parents have lost their jobs. In that context, it’s more important than ever that children’s meals continue to be provided.”
While initial food drops have been done through the schools, An Post has come on board with a view to brining food packs straight to families’ doorsteps.
“People have really put their heads together to figure out how to respond to this crisis situation,” Mr Mulcahy said. “It’s great to see that kind of cooperation. Nobody could have anticipated this kind of situation, it’s unprecedented.”
Freshtoday has also been able to rehire some of its workforce, thanks to the continuation of its school meals contract, albeit in a different form.
“On the day the Taoiseach announced the closure of schools and colleges, we were in the middle of getting the next day’s orders ready,” Mr Mulcahy said. “In a matter of hours we had to shut down and make sure we could get the food to charities in need, so that nothing went to waste.”
Managers from different Freshtoday facilities then came together the following Sunday in Portlaoise to consider their options: “It was as big blow, but the entire catering and hospitality sector has been hit so hard that we’re among the luckier ones. We will be taking around 11 people back in Shannon and hopefully up to 100 at our other plants. Our facility in Longford will be catering for patients in isolation and for healthcare staff at University Hospital Galway (UHG).”
The initiative has also enabled the company to restore orders to key suppliers and keep their operations going: “We have the likes of Seery’s Bakery in Carlow who will be producing 40,000 units a week under this initiative, and other companies who can now begin production again.”
With the wider catering and hospitality industry reeling from the ongoing restrictions on movement, Mr Mulcahy noted that support will be needed for the sector once the crisis eases: “We have been extremely lucky in getting some staff back to work and we anticipate that when the schools return, we will get our customer base back. Other outlets and producers won’t be as lucky. They will need support if they are to recover and continue to provide employment.”
Mr Mulcahy also paid tribute to the company’s staff, who, he said, are happy to play their part in responding the Covid-19 crisis: “Our policy at Freshtoday has always been to ensure lunches are made with as much care as if they are for our own children. That does not change. We are an essential service right now and our staff have pulled together like never before.”