University caterer cuts carbon and increases profits

Removing beef and lamb from the menu and promoting plant-based food options has had a “dramatic effect” on food-related carbon emissions at Cambridge University.

In October 2016, the University Catering Service (UCS), which is responsible for 14 outlets across the University and over 1,500 hospitality events each year, introduced a new sustainable food policy.

Key actions included: reducing the consumption of meat, in particular ruminant meat (beef and lamb); improving and increasing the availability of plant-based options; removing unsustainable fish from the menu; and reducing food waste.

An analysis of the new policy’s impact has just been published, which shows emissions have been reduced by 500 tonnes each year. “Carbon emissions were reduced by 10.5% between 2015 and 2018, despite an increase in volume of food purchased. When standardised, there was a 33% reduction in carbon emissions per kilogram of food purchased, and a 28% reduction in land use per kilogram of food purchased,” the report notes.

Footfall has remained steady, whilst gross profits grew by 2% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, despite increases in food costs.

“It is hard to imagine any other interventions that could yield such dramatic benefits in so short a span of time,” said Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge, who advised UCS.

Sales of pork have increased, but poultry sales fell slightly. More fruit, vegetables and pulses have been purchased since the new policy was introduced and the UCS also sells more plant-based food now.

As well as increasing the number and variety of vegetarian and vegan options, subtle “nudge” techniques were introduced, including placing the vegetarian and vegan options before the meat options and changing how food options were labelled.

Catering staff were briefed on the environmental benefits of the new policy and the UCS provided chefs with vegan cookery classes and a trip to Borough Market for inspiration on plant-based menus. Meanwhile, café managers were trained on “marketing for sustainability rather than profit”.

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