Insight from the experts, part 6

Where food is concerned, there’s more to sustainability than local sourcing, says Sue Parfett

How can a caterer become more sustainable? And does using a local supplier automatically make you more sustainable?

The answer to this second questions is ‘no’. Just take my local retailers for example. I live in a semi-rural area and my nearest shop (one mile) has products from multinationals and, apart from milk and factory-produced bread, very little that is fresh or local. It is privately owned and the owner’s family work in the shop. Further away (two miles) is a small franchised supermarket. They employ more people and have a wide range of local products, as well as the typical branded items and the franchise’s own brands. However, whilst they have the staples, it is not possible to guarantee they have what I need on that particular visit. Then the furthest (four miles) is a well-known national supermarket. It gives a wider choice, consistent availability and, frankly, better provenance on the food.

This probably reflects the debate about sustainability for caterers. And it isn’t easy to weigh up all the factors and demands that different groups feel that this means.

We often get asked at Brookwood if we can use local suppliers and of course we can – and do. However, the use of local suppliers in itself does not mean local production, improvements in sustainability or more employment in the community.

Using a local supplier shouldn’t be confused with buying locally produced goods. For an individual caterer it can be quite difficult to obtain a wide range of, say, local vegetables easily. With meat, for example, local suppliers also have some difficulty in providing traceability and provenance. With over 50 percent of beef sold in the UK being in minced form, these checks help avoid situations such as the horsemeat scandal.

Local is also not automatically better for the environment. Consider the impact of British tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses versus Canary Island tomatoes that are naturally heated. Carbon emissions versus food miles. All are debates that can go on and even science doesn’t agree.

What we do know is food is a global commodity and we are in a worldwide market. Britain only produces enough food for half of its requirements. The UN has said global food production needs to increase by 50 percent by 2030 to meet increasing world population requirements. Big business wants to use genetically modified crops. The UK is nervous of GM crops, environmentalists don’t like them, and yet 25 percent of crops produced in the world are GM. With crops increasingly used for biofuels and not as food, and the world diet becoming gradually westernised, this all has an upward pressure on availability and costs.

The difficult issue is we all want low prices, but low food prices are driven by cheap imports and a variety of other risks. So what can a catering service do to balance all of these points? An answer is to take an approach such as that championed by the Sustainable Restaurant Association which has three pillars: sourcing, society and environment. It promotes all these when sourcing produce, not putting one pillar over and above another. This helps with the balancing of all views on sustainability and ensures that caterers can still provide an excellent service.

Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) is an organisation that certifies smaller food producers as having achieved safe and legal standards and an approach to continuous improvement which professional companies require. SALSA approval of local suppliers helps caterers prove due diligence with their food supply.

Using a good regional supplier often means local supplies with a range that suits the school. Consider also using local farmers and butchers that sell whole carcasses and use traditional whole cuts of meat such as brisket and shin so the contents of the mince (or burgers) doesn’t become a headline issue.

And finally include the whole school in a concerted effort to reduce waste. We have achieved a 10 percent reduction in consumption in a well-run waste programme. The key is an enthusiastic school, with pupils and the catering team all working together.

In November 2014, Brookwood became the first schools’ caterer to be awarded a three-star rating by the Sustainable Restaurant Association. 

Sue Parfett is managing partner of the Brookwood Partnership W:

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