Buying more from local sources…reducing excess production…using previously discarded food scraps in innovative recipes…composting what foodstuffs can’t be reused and recycling non-foods…promoting reusable containers and permanent ware utensils and dishware…installing energy-efficient equipment…
These are just some of the ways onsite dining operators are embracing sustainability principles, not just as a moral imperative but, increasingly, as a practical matter as well. In an age of escalating food and energy costs, reducing waste and becoming more efficient are just good business. Add the growing demand among customers for more planet-friendly options and a regulatory environment that is increasingly putting the squeeze on traditional practices like simply dumping all waste in landfills and you have a perfect storm for incenting historical change.
Leading the way are the major players in the industry, whose practices not only affect a significant portion of the overall market but whose demands drive behaviors up and down the supply chain because of the volumes they command.
Compass Group, which through its various operating companies has a significant presence in just about every onsite dining market and whose Foodbuy LLC unit claims to be the largest group purchasing organization in North America, has made sustainability a priority. It introduced Stop Food Waste Day five years ago as a step toward its goal of halving its food waste by 2030 and in its most recent celebration this past April focused on creating and promoting dishes that use traditionally discarded products like banana peels and coffee grounds.
Its Chartwells unit recently announced the introduction of climate labeling items on college dining hall menus to encourage more climate-informed dining decisions while recent data shows that the company’s waste tracking efforts have been successful in reducing food waste by 33% across all U.S.-based cafes using its Waste Not 1.0 platform over the past year. An updated version, the proprietary tablet-based Waste Not 2.0 program, launched in late 2021, builds on that commitment to cut food waste in half by 2030 through a high-tech tool that helps kitchen staff identify waste-reduction opportunities that go beyond typical trim, bones, core and peel waste.
Meanwhile, Sodexo, the second largest contract player in the U.S., continues to leverage its three year old commitment to utilizing the World Wildlife Fund Future 50 Foods, 50 plant-based foods that are healthy, flavorful, accessible and have lower carbon footprint than animal based foods. A recent showcase at the University of Vermont highlighted menu items utilizing these sustainable ingredients.
The company also recently expanded its collaboration with the Humane Society of the United States to increase the plant-based menu options it offers in its university accounts, while its Good Eating Company unit announced that it is committing 15% of its food budget to source from farms with regenerative agriculture practices by 2025, and will look for additional producers that meet its qualifications and are interested in converting to regenerative practices. Sodexo recently partnered with Walmart to support and work towards the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment’s goal to reduce and prevent food waste by 50% along the West Coast of the United States by 2030 as a climate change solution and announced a commitment to support the renewable energy infrastructure by purchasing renewable energy credits covering 50% of electricity consumption by the end of its 2022 fiscal year (i.e., Aug. 31, 2022) and 100% by fiscal year 2023.
The third of the industry’s three mega firms, Aramark, has committed to setting enterprise-wide science-based targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and as that effort proceeds, it plans to continue to work toward the goal it set as a core pillar of its Be Well. Do Well sustainability plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15% from its 2019 baseline by the end of 2025 in the U.S. In addition, along with World Resources Institute, Aramark has introduced Cool Food Meals on college residential dining menus, making it easier for students at 10 U.S.-based universities to make climate-friendly choices.
In its 2021 Be Well. Do Well. Impact Report, released early this year, Aramark determined that a significant portion of its emissions come from purchased goods and services, so it will examine sourcing practices and menu offerings to further reduce emissions related to these areas; it also raised its ambition level on climate impact by committing to set enterprise-wide science-based targets.
Other contract firm have been creating their own programs. Elior company Aladdin Campus Dining recently took its Vegebond plant-based pop-ups on the road, K-12 specialist Southwest Foodservice Excellence is partnering with celebrity chefs to create meatless dishes that appeal to kids while meeting school nutrition requirements, Metz Culinary Management sent its own nutrition educator out to schools to educate students on the benefits of incorporating plenty of fruits and veggies into their daily diets and Fresh Ideas Food Service Management launched its Mindful Fork plant-based menu concept program with the goal of eventually providing one plant-based entrée for every meat-based option.
Some large-scale dining programs like UC Davis Health and Prince William County Schools have discovered the benefits of local sourcing that sometimes extend beyond just freshness and better community ties to areas like basic supply reliability at a time when extended supply chains are strained.
Local sourcing doesn’t always mean going outside the organization either, with institutions using previously empty space like rooftops and some schools not only growing some of their own produce needs but raising their own beef.
Colleges have been among the most aggressive in promoting sustainable practices in their dining programs with local sourcing and menus based on local seasonal product being especially emphasized while single-use disposables, which temporarily came back in vogue during the pandemic, again being shunted aside in favor of reusables and recyclables. Universities with their ag schools and environmental studies programs also have a leg up on implementing programs like the use of closed-loop composting and the financing of biodigester units. NACUFS recently recognized some of the most innovative with its 2022 Sustainability Awards.
K-12 school meal programs, meanwhile, are growing to appreciate their role in forming lifetime sustainable habits among their young customers, with programs promoting more plant-based dining. Some districts go so far as to operate their own farms while others are working on implementing recycling and composting efforts. The past two years have challenged school meal programs in this area because of the need to rely on takeaway packaging to serve remote learning students, forcing many to use non-recyclable packaging as industry-wide demand forced shortages and price hikes, especially on recyclable/compostable alternatives.
In healthcare, the benefits of eating more planet-friendly whole grains, fruits and vegetables have long been known but has received new impetus. While few go the whole meatless route like Loma Linda University Health, where dining is governed by the vegetarian principles of its religious parent organization, initiatives like Good Food, Health Hospitals is providing a template for willing organizations like Penn Health, whose new Green Commons features a menu built off the Good Food, Healthy Hospitals Platinum Standard criteria, which means incorporating a wide variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats and scratch-made dishes, as well as a commitment to waste reduction that currently is seeing some 3,500 pounds of waste a day diverted from landfills through the use of a pair of onsite biodigester units.