DITCHING DESK and kitchen for field and factory, the Footprint & TUCO Frontline Farming Field Trip got down and dirty to look under the bonnet of sustainable business Amy Fetzer reports.
Introducing a weekly meat-free pasta day to get students eating less meat without even noticing. Doing a spot check to weigh the kitchen’s waste to jolt staff into preventative action. Asking more searching questions of their fish suppliers.
These are just a few of the ideas being taken back into the kitchen and implemented after this week’s Footprint and TUCO fieldtrip to River Cottage and Wyke Farms.
From gaining insights on ethical sourcing, menu planning and produce at River Cottage, to seeing Wyke Farms’ award-winning cheddar factory and anaerobic digester in action, the trip showcased best practice in glorious 3-D Technicolor. And judging by the “to do lists” being bandied around, field trippers left buzzing with a range of concrete tips and ideas to take back to their catering teams to get their kitchens thinking and behaving more sustainably.
The trip started at River Cottage, where field trippers were tasked with cooking themselves a seasonal banquet, which tasted so good they wouldn’t mind it was made entirely without meat. (And they succeeded, with the usually carnivorous crowd raving about the delicious and satisfying lunch).
Head chef Gelf Alderson then shared his insights on sustainable catering:
Cook consciously. Cooking sustainably encompasses everything from choosing seasonal produce to using plentiful but less popular cuts of meat so no part of the animal is wasted. Use the knowledge you have to inform everything from menu choices to sourcing.
Eat less meat.
Meat is a hugely inefficient way of getting protein and you shouldn’t “put more in then you get out,” with feed conversion ratios of 6:1 typical of animals such as intensively farmed pigs. This means it takes at least six kilos of feed to get one kilo of pork; and it requires 18 times less land to feed a vegan than an omnivore. So consider choosing meats from less intensive sources, and try to increase the proportion of vegetables in your dishes, and the vegetarian options on the menu.
Invest in your chefs.
Cooking seasonably, and without waste requires the right training. This means chefs have the skills to do things like turn seconds or trimmings that could otherwise be wasted into other dishes, such as soup. And it means they can cook the full range of cuts of meat, so your kitchen can utilise plentiful, good value but less popular cuts of meat such as shin or brisket.
“Local” has become a “tag-word that many companies hide behind. Work out what it means to you.” Is it five, 15, 50 miles or is it regional? And nail down the difference between suppliers and produce – because a local supplier isn’t necessarily supplying local produce so if local produce is important to you, talk to your suppliers about how you can get it. It may mean changing menus to make t hem more seasonal.
Get to know your farmers.
Then you can know and trust their produce, and adding names and farms to ingredients on menus increases customer appeal. Field tripper Derek Gardner, head chef, Brighton University, noted that including the provenance for meat on menus often increases uptake, and inspired him to test out whether doing the same for vegetables might give them a boost too.
Good ingredients need less work.
Premium ingredients have much better taste, and require much less effort to turn them into delicious dishes, especially when it comes to creating tempting vegetable/vegetarian dishes.
Eat the whole animal.
Each lamb only has two shanks, so supplying specific cuts can be a challenge for smaller producers, but the market’s obsession with the same cuts also leads to waste up larger supply chains. Nose to tail eating requires more imagination, such as serving a trio of different cuts to use up more of the animal, and can lead to reduced costs as less popular cuts often cost less.
When Alderson worked at the National Trust, he guaranteed to buy up a local producer’s “waste” – and he’d then use cuts, such as the shin and brisket, which other outlets didn’t want to create mouth-watering dishes with great margins.
Guarantee the market. If you want something but cannot source it, tell your producers that you will guarantee to buy it so that they have the confidence to invest in producing it. River Cottage did this to ensure a supply of local organic bacon for their restaurants.
Fight for menu flexibility.
By fighting to be allowed to opt out of set menus so he could source seasonably, locally and flexibly and implement a zero waste policy, Alderson managed to make a sizeable profit for the National Trust restaurant he ran previously. So fight to change or opt out of policies that are hindering you.
Build a relationship with your fish supplier.
When fish arrives filleted and tailed, there is no way of knowing whether it was line caught or from potentially damaging trawling or dredging. So get to know your supplier so you know you can trust them when they say a fish is sustainably sourced. As buyers, Alderson suggested, if we group together to demand change so that the industry converts to line caught, we can succeed, as with the campaign to ban battery eggs from UK retailers.
Next, the green machinations of cheddar producer Wyke Farms were laid bare with a tour of the cheese factory, milking sheds and anaerobic digester. In between, managing director Rich Clothier described how taking responsibility for climate change and being “100% green” were just 100% good business, and shared his top tips:
Capitalise on your capital.
“The best green projects utilise our natural assets,” argued Clothier. “The things that we curse, like slurry from our diary herds, can become assets for sustainable business.” Wyke Farms’ anaerobic digester powers their factory as well as the local town of Bruton. It also turns slurry and waste from other local businesses into renewable power. The farm also has south facing roofs suitable for PV on their milking sheds, so they installed panels with ice bank power storage underneath to chill the milk and provide power.
Make sustainability the goal.
“We were undertaking a cost cutting process - planning production runs to minimise waste and reduce energy use,” explained Clothier. “And we realized everything we did had a beneficial impact on environment. So we said, let’s turn it on its head, and make sustainability our goal - what savings does that unlock? And we found many savings that we never would have found from a lean manufacturing route.”
Take responsibility for playing a positive part.
As farmers in the region, it is clear the climate is changing, Clothier explained. They don’t get any more rain, but it falls all at once, causing flooding, nutrient leaching and fertilizer run off. “It’s about businesses like mine putting their hand up and taking responsibility. It’s back to basics - my grandparents always said, ‘If you look after nature, nature will look after you.’ We’re the first to put sustainability on the front of our packs, but we wish to operate our business in a way that has minimal impact on the Somerset environment and to create a truly symbiotic relationship with the countryside that provides our food, our income and our home.”
To being more imaginative with vegetables and finding ways to use existing capital in greener, more cost efficient ways, the fieldtrip acted “like the Footprint Forums,” observed Shirley Duncalf, head of sustainability, Bidvest Foodservice. “It gets people together, and agitates things, and brings things to the forefront so you actually tackle them.”
The trip, said Helen Anzani, head of catering services, University of South Wales, was a valuable reminder “to focus away from scaremongering on the tangible things” that can be done. “It’s really refreshing to come out of the kitchen and see that long sighted approach of businesses who are looking at every single bit of their operations and trying to make them as sustainable as possible. Because sometimes, you can feel battered down with all the ‘No’s’, so you lose sight of what you can do. The field trip has reminded me not to be overwhelmed – but to do the things I can do because they are still important.”
“It was really inspiring,” said Alan Barrow, Head Chef, Newton Rigg. “It’s so easy to do things in autopilot. But it’s everybody’s responsibility and the field trip has given me that shake to push on.”
And to see how field trip inspiration has turned into measurable, monitored actions, we’ll be checking back with the field trippers and bringing you progress report in the spring.