Yesterday, I participated in a townhall-style event called “KlimaEssen” here at my university in Bonn (which can be loosely translated as ClimateEats) in which we discussed various ways in which we can all eat in a more sustainable fashion. One great aspect of the event was that it was in part organized by the university’s food services department, and that they were extremely open in their quest to overhaul their services to be more climate and environmentally friendly.
Here are some of the ideas they already addressed:
- As we talked about at the event, limiting your consumption of meat and animal products is one of the greatest ways to improve the climate balance on your plate. The dining halls in Bonn (called ‘Mensas’) all offer at least one vegetarian main course every day, in addition to salad bars, and an always vegetarian soup of the day (you can add a sausage to it if you want, though). Furthermore, their latest innovation is an entire floor of vegan and vegetarian items on offer in their biggest dining hall (sadly, not the one closest to my campus). This has proven to be a huge success, and the marketing manager which I talked to later said that according to their estimates around 45% of meals purchased are vegetarian (including the people using the salad bar though, which does offer small meat or fish items as well). That was still a very impressive number to me.
- When I asked how they dealt with food waste, they said they collaborated with a food waste company that recycled things that could be reused (such as frying oil) and transforms the rest into some sort of biofuel or biogas (I don’t quite remember).
- Also, in our dining halls they serve the mains and sides separately. So, for example, you have a choice between a meat and a vegetarian main, and then little bowls of rice, potatoes, noodles, vegetables, or salad which you can add to your meal independently (as well as dessert 🙂 ). The food service manager said that she was able to see a dramatic decrease in the food that was returned by students because now people were able to choose exactly what they wanted to eat: instead of being bound to a choice of either chicken-rice-and-carrots or tofu-noodles-and-peas, you could get chicken-noodles-and-peas, tofu-carrots-and-peas, chicken-and-tofu if you long for proteins… An almost infinite choice set!
However, they also mentioned challenges that are limiting them in their efforts:
- Since they buy products through a purchasing cooperative of all the dining hall services in the Bundesland, it is difficult to establish particular standards regarding regionality or labeling – they need to coordinate these initiatives with all of their cooperative partners, and especially an extremely regional focus threatens to dissatisfy consumers that are used to more choice.
- They participate in a version of Meatless Monday – “Vegetarian Thursday” – through an advert campaign, but the marketing director was pretty straightforward in saying that it was a ‘fake’ effort, since they offer vegetarian meals any day of the week and don’t significantly change their offers on Thursday. A discussion of only serving vegetarian meals on Thursday quickly rallied outspoken opponents that protested against the ‘imposition of ideologies’ (Germans do like their meat) and I even saw the FDP (a pro-business, liberal, right-wing party in Germany) fraction of the student parliament run on their explicit opposition of a no-meat-day in cafeterias.
- They only buy fair trade coffee and cocoa for their hot beverages and have introduced fair trade chocolate recently in their selection, but the marketing director confided that he was worried about the sales volume, since students specifically do feel a price difference and frequently go for the cheaper good (remember my post about sticky German chocolate prices?).
Overall, the discussion widened to discuss up to which extent a large food provider such as a dining hall can impose certain food choices on their clients, which one could argue are somewhat of a captive audience (in Germany, student dining halls are strongly subsidized and food is significantly cheaper than anywhere else; plus, in the area of my campus besides the mensa there is only one more little truck that sells sandwiches and a bakery around 15 minutes away.) The mensa operators were adamant that they wanted to offer alternatives (such as vegan choices or fair trade chocolate) but not impose any restrictions on commercially popular items.
An item in question, for example, was the sale of Müller Milch products in the context of the use or not of dairy products from GMO-fed cows. An audience member which strongly opposed such GMOs asked why these items were still sold in the mensa, though the purchasing strategy of the cooperative for ingredients had technically opposed the use of GMO – linked products. The answer: “Because it is one of our most popular items.” In response, the audience member argued that big institutions such as dining halls had the financial clout to impose standards and make stated purchasing decisions that resonate more in the market that those of individuals – so why not harness that power for something the management ostentatiously believes in?
I find this an interesting issue and the challenges and opportunities in the sustainability of dining establishments a fascinating topic to work on. For what it’s worth, our Mensa managers spoke of their plans to extend the vegan offers to other dining halls, to label more (also for allergens, which will become mandatory as of December 2014), and to engage in more discussions on these issues to try to be a front-runner in the area of sustainable dining in Bonn (which has branded itself as a ‘Sustainable City’).
What are your experiences with the sustainability of institutional dining establishments? And how do you think the balance can be made between frontier efforts in sustainable food choice offers and individuals’ freedom to purchase whatever they want?