This Week: The International Food Festival at South Wilts Grammar School for Girls
By: Sally Walden, PTA Chair.
When did you run your first International Food Festival? In the summer term of 2017.
Where did the idea come from? We were holding a regular PTA meeting early in the spring term and a mum turned up. She wasn’t one of our regular volunteers, but she said she’d like to organise and run a multicultural food festival as a school community building and fundraising event.
What prompted the offer? There were two reasons. The first was that her child was in Year Five and she wanted to put something back into the school. The second was that she had always felt hesitant about attending our meetings and felt that other parents from different countries or ethnic backgrounds might feel the same. She wanted to introduce an event that felt more inclusive to her than the usual fetes, fairs and balls.
What did you say? I said yes – I thought it was a great idea. So, a week later we met up for coffee, ostensibly to talk it through, but also for me to check if she was going to be able to take on and run an event like that. It turned out she used to work as a party planner so not only was she capable of running a great event, but I was going to be able to learn a lot from her…
How did things progress? We sent an email out, via the school office, telling parents what we were doing and asking for volunteers from different culinary backgrounds if they’d be willing to showcase some of their national foods. She also approached some of her friends. Very quickly we had around 20 – 25 different cooking volunteers.
And a kitchen? The school agreed to let us have access to the kitchen on the day, but we wanted to keep things as simple as possible. So, we asked people to make things that could either be served cold or needed simple re-heating/ keeping warm in slow cookers. That solved issues of timing and meant the kitchen wouldn’t be over-run with emotional chefs.
What amount of food were you expecting them to cook? I found that one of the hardest things to gauge. In the end, we decided that the capacity for the event was about 200 people, so we would ask each of the volunteers to cook enough to serve 20 people. The idea was that each volunteer would have a trestle table decorated with their national flag or national flowers and anyone who wanted to try their food would go up and ask for a portion.
Like a free-for-all buffet? Not quite! When people came into the hall and showed their ticket, they were handed an envelope with 20 dry haricot beans inside. Each time they went to get a portion of food they had to hand over one of their haricot beans. I was worried that the system wouldn’t work – that everyone would decide they wanted food from the Ethiopian table and there’d be a rush on it, while everyone ignored the Italian table next door. Our new super party planner PTA mum just told me to calm down and not to worry – if the Ethiopian food ran out, people would then move on to the Italian. She was completely right.
What else was she right about? Everything. She is immensely calm, creative and fun. She wanted it to look good, so she said that instead of getting disposable plastic cutlery she would get in banana leaves as plates and wooden forks. It looked wonderful. She also said that as it was a foodie event, we should buy in good quality wine that matched the dishes and charge more than we would usually (£4 – 5 rather than the normal £2 a glass). We bought it on a sale-or-return basis from Majestic and made sure that all the volunteers knew which wines went with which food. It worked brilliantly and no one complained that the wine was pricier. We also got in fancier (and pricier) non-alcoholic drinks for children: things like fizzy elderflower, which went down well too.
Who sold the wine? As well as the cooks, we had five or six PTA volunteers helping on the night, setting up and serving wine. And in the run-up to the event there were three of us working behind the scenes. Isabel handled all the food–related stuff; another parent took on the ticket sales and got in some food-related prizes for a raffle and I did all the liaising with the school, the caretaker and the kitchens.
How did ticket sales go? At first, terribly! We’d decided that we had to sell tickets beforehand, we couldn’t sell them on the night as we needed a rough guide to how much drink to buy in. We were charging £10 for adults and £5 for children. But ten days before the event, I was panicking because we really had sold hardly any. Now my fear was that there would be all this food and no one to eat it!
What did you do? Someone else on the PTA had two bright ideas. The first was to ask the school if they would email the families of the children who were due to start at the school in September (we held the event in the summer term) and invite them along. It would give them a chance to meet one another and get to look around the school again. The second idea was for me to go into the Year seven, eight and nine assembly, enthuse the girls and get them to convince their parents to buy tickets. That double-pronged approach worked – and tickets started to fly out of the door.
So, what was it like on the night? Exhausting but fantastic. We both gave up the whole day to getting things ready – buying wine, setting up tables etc etc. It was held on a Thursday and the volunteers and cooks turned up around 4pm. We’d decided that we wanted people to mingle and be sociable, so we only put out a modest amount of seating (to cover people with mobility issues or who wanted a rest) and then we set out the food tables around the edge of the hall, with a big space in the middle for people to stand. The actual event started at 6pm, was meant to last until 8pm, but eventually went on until 9pm. She had organised for some of the girls to do a dance as entertainment, and she also asked one of her friends to come and do African drumming. He got everyone dancing.
How much did the night raise? We made about £2,000. It should have been slightly less, but hardly any of the cooks claimed back for their expenses. They donated their time and money.
What was the best thing about the event, for you? I think the best thing of all was that this event really did bring in a different set of people and those new people, will now (hopefully) be more inclined to engage with the PTA. It built the feeling of school community, it was a great introduction for all the parents whose children have just started in Year seven and it was fun! There was a really happy, relaxed atmosphere on the night. People were proud to share the food they loved – it was a real conversational icebreaker.
Would you do anything differently next time? We now have Classlist, so I’ll definitely use Classlist to help advertise the event. I’ll try and organise even more entertainment, as that was a lovely part of the night. I’ll charge more for the tickets, £15 for adults and £5 for children. And I’ll give people 15 dry haricot beans, rather than 20. As delicious as the food was, most people couldn’t eat 20 portions on the night!