Special report: catering and the environment

The UK’s independent schools are taking the fight against climate change to the kitchen and dining table, writes Simon Fry

The University of Cambridge was in the news in September with a report highlighting a 10.5% overall carbon emissions reduction since implementation of its Sustainable Food Journey.

The initiative included reducing meat consumption, particularly that of ruminant meat – beef and lamb. Similar developments across the independent education sector – some prompted by student demand – are evidence of an appetite for change among pupils.

You can have some more!

Suffice to say the move to make catering more eco-friendly can bring enrichment beyond nutrition, through the wholesome experience of eating home-grown food. HawleyHurst School is currently growing a designated ‘soup patch’ whereby vegetables in a bed will be used to make a soup come harvest time but, already, home-grown potatoes, garlic and runner beans have been served onsite, with children informed of these ingredients’ provenance. In general, to reduce food waste, “Pupils are served smaller portions, with a culture that welcomes children returning for seconds,” says Andy McCoy, head of sustainability.

Helen Bonner, catering and cleaning manager, runs cooking lessons focusing on no waste by, for example, practising vegetable cuts to ensure the entire plant is used. She is also looking to reduce use of foodstuffs containing palm oil by 10%. The school runs sustainability classes and has started taster sessions for senior pupils to try new foods, to waste less.

Season well!

By Deborah Homshaw, managing director of CH&CO Independent

The seasons give chefs an abundance of fresh, delicious produce to work with and a whole heap of inspiration. Menus that reflect the seasons are not just ‘on trend’, they also make a lot of sense.

Firstly, there’s the sustainability benefit. Using seasonal British produce, wherever possible, automatically reduces the distance produce has to travel to reach our schools, which has a positive impact on our carbon footprint. The more local the better, we say! It also enables us to support local enterprises and make a positive contribution to the communities where we work. Building relationships with local producers help us understand more about the ingredients we’re working with and share our learnings with the inquisitive pupils we feed.

Seasonal produce often costs less too. As well as having less distance to travel, food in season is usually in abundance, which, just as consumers experience in the supermarkets, makes it cheaper.

Ripe, seasonal produce simply tastes fantastic. It’s no coincidence, for example, that strawberries picked in season have more flavour than those found out of season! It’s also at its optimum nutrient level.

Our chefs have been busy developing delicious and nutritious menus that celebrate this season’s bounty, including kohlrabi, pumpkins, butternut squash, sweet potato, curly kale, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, apples and pears.

Smoothie change goes smoothly

Ian Holliday, head of commercial development at Pelican Procurement, is seeing caterers seeking suppliers best placed to achieve a particular goal.

He says: “Sustainability has become an ever-higher priority for all hospitality sectors due to the highly publicised environmental impact the food industry has on the planet. The pressure for change is on!” Pelican have responded by supporting clients to reduce their plastic waste by, for example, moving away from disposable packaging to reusable crates when buying fresh produce.

When cod was removed recently from the sustainability list, it was removed immediately from Greenbank’s menu

Simple but eye-catching initiatives have made massive progress at Pelican client Thomas’ London Day School, where Mark Newman is general catering manager. He says: “We asked parents to supply their children with a reusable bottle they can refill. That alone has helped us remove 50,000 plastic bottles per year!”

As one of its pudding options, the school was using 2,500 carton smoothies (with straws) weekly, before the decision was taken to make their own. “It was a bit of a game-changer,” says Newman. “We’ve got better at it and once people make it a routine it gets easier.”

The move has reduced food waste, as fruit not used during the breakfast serving finds its way into smoothies.

Yoghurt previously served in 2,500 individual cartons is now bought in five-gallon containers and decanted into bowls, while the school has also moved from disposables to greener products made from recycled or compostable materials, such as the Vegware range. The introduction of classroom food waste bins sees their contents disposed for composting while a menu change has seen the school go ‘meat-free’ one day weekly, reducing meat consumption by around 200 kilograms per week.

Hot water without global warming

Dishwashing at Highfield and Brookham Schools is a clean operation in more ways than one. Sophie Baber, headteacher of Brookham School, says: “We have a responsibility to prepare our children for the future. There is absolutely no question that climate change is the most significant crisis we have ever faced.”

Brookham School reception children grow their own vegetables and make soup

At Highfield and Brookham Schools, the largest project to help with this kickstarted in 2013 with construction of two 350kW state-of-the-art woodchip-fuelled biomass boilers, heating all of the hot water throughout the schools, including the kitchen. This has led to the removal of 20 oil-fired boilers, a massive saving of 140,000 litres of oil annually and an estimated annual saving of 288 tons of carbon dioxide, saving 5,760 tons over 20 years.

Environmental good practice is firmly rooted throughout, with children taught about food in lessons and growing their own vegetables in a kitchen garden before taking on the role of chefs and making their own delicious homemade soup. “The children who represent their peers on Eco Councils will be meeting throughout the year to ensure we keep our environmental responsibility at the top of our school agenda,” says Baber.

Additionally, all children are given the opportunity to compost their fruit snack waste in compost bins. As of next term, yoghurt will no longer be offered in individual pots as a pudding option; instead, the schools will either buy in bulk and decant or make something else instead.

Significant changes made by the catering department are helping to eliminate single-use plastics, with fully compostable cutlery made from 100% renewable resources. The schools will be replacing white plastic disposable cups with a clear Bioware cup made of corn starch which is compostable and biodegradable. In the kitchen, once the schools’ current stock of black plastic bags are used they will be replaced with biodegradable ones. Paper baguette bags, rather than cling film, are used for packed lunches and the schools will move to covering tables with linen cloths, rather than cling film.

The schools are increasingly aware of the ingredients to avoid and, where possible, avoid products containing ingredients such as palm oil. More vegetarian options are being offered than ever before due to demand from staff and pupils – year-on-year Highfield and Brookham Schools are finding more people are wanting to reduce the amount of meat they are eating or opting to be fully vegetarian or vegan.

Bursting with sustainability

CH&CO Independent holds the top-level three-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association for its commitment to operating responsibly and sustainably.

“Across our schools we focus on seasonal, local produce and reducing food waste, meat on the menu and single-use disposable products,” says managing director Deborah Homshaw.

“We also educate pupils on the impact food choices have on the environment.

“Our Good Food Works programme helps them understand where food comes from as well as the benefits it has on our bodies and minds.”

At Copthill School CH&CO Independent chefs use seasonal produce from local suppliers whenever possible. The school keeps chicken and pigs and has a vegetable garden and land for foraging. The garden is a great place for pupils to learn about food, from seeds and the growing process through to harvesting, cooking and eating, supported through a cookery club.

Food waste is recycled as compost for the school garden, and fruit and vegetable peelings make excellent fodder for the chicken and pigs. The use of disposable goods has been minimised through removing them or buying compostable options, the chefs swapping single-use plastic bags for food prep in favour of washable, reusable tubs.   

CH&CO chefs at Greenbank Preparatory School use a butcher and grocer within two miles of the school to reduce food miles. Vegetables are grown onsite, and for November’s Thanksgiving dinner, as many vegetables as possible will come directly from the school’s grounds, including pumpkins, cabbages, potatoes and carrots. Greenbank makes its own biscuits to avoid using palm oil and uses only fish local to the British Isles; when cod was removed recently from the sustainability list, it was removed immediately from Greenbank’s menu.

“Across our schools we champion a holistic approach to our menus, ensuring our pupils are exposed to a varied, balanced diet. More plant-based options are providing delicious alternatives to meat, with meat-free Monday proving popular,” says Homshaw.

Across our schools we champion a holistic approach to our menus, ensuring our pupils are exposed to a varied, balanced diet

Sixth formers ditch single-use plastics

Millfield School’s in-house caterer, Chartwells, works with the UK’s largest food waste charity, FareShare, which redistributes surplus food to charities nationally, turned into meals for those in need. The school recycles its used cooking oil into biodiesel, supports National Stop Food Waste Day and its catering manager, Denis Verrier, became the Environmental Champion in Chartwell’s independent sector in 2018.

Millfield uses 4,031.5 litres of milk weekly from Midway Farm Dairy, 15 miles away in Radstock, their entire supplier for the last 20 years. Apples and blackberries from the school’s orchard are harvested by Millfield Prep boarding houses for making into juice and jam.

Millfield School’s caterer Chartwells works with FareShare to redistribute surplus food to charities

The school’s single-use plastic initiative was entirely pupil-led, with eco-committee members and upper sixth pupils Imara-Bella Thorpe and Emma Harvey leading the charge. In the autumn 2018 term, use across Millfield and Millfield Prep was down by 22,000 bottles, with zero plastic bottles used at Millfield from spring until the end of the summer term.

The UK’s independent schools are blazing a trail for environmentally-friendly catering. On menus and in dining halls, in the curriculum and in the classroom or outside in school grounds, the need to protect our precious planet while producing delicious, healthy food is instilling lifelong good habits and conscientious thinking into pupils who will expect similar credentials of their chosen university. Beyond the statistics of reduced food miles and smaller carbon footprints, less quantifiable benefits are accruing, as children nurture an appreciation of food and the process by which it came to their plate.

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