How 14 million meals could change catering forever

Sensemaking / How 14 million meals could change catering forever

Can LOCOG's Food Vision help to make sustainable catering standard fare at major events in the future? That's the plan, says Rachel England.

26 Jul 2012

Can LOCOG’s Food Vision help to make sustainable catering standard fare at major events in the future? That’s the plan, says Rachel England.

It's a safe bet that London 2012 will see more calories consumed than burned. The Olympic Village alone will be stocked with 25,000 loaves of bread, 232 tonnes of potatoes, more than 100 tonnes of meat and 75,000 litres of milk – and then there are hundreds of tonnes of seafood, poultry, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables on top of that. Around 14 million meals will be served during the Games, enough to make the biblical miracle of feeding the 5,000 look like a picnic. Still more ambitious was the aim to make this huge event a shining example of sustainable catering.

So what could peckish players and spectators pick up in the Park? If you fancy a sandwich, you'll find Red Leicester cheese with apple chutney – both British – on bread baked in Oxfordshire. Perhaps you'll opt for jacket potato with Freedom Foods chicken, which throughout its life has been looked after to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's (RSPCA) strict welfare standards. For a bit of crunch, add Dingley Dell bacon, from pigs reared outdoors in Suffolk – or go the whole hog and have a roast: all meat served at the Games will bear the Red Tractor mark, a guarantee of strict standards of food safety, traceability and animal welfare. Similarly, all the eggs bear the British Lion Mark for free-range. Fairtrade bananas are guaranteed, and the same goes for tea, coffee and sugar. All chocolate products will be either Fairtrade-certified or 'ethically sourced' (though it's not quite clear how the latter will be assured).

Mouth-watering – but what if you've splashed out on tickets and are keen to save your pennies? LOCOG has been keen to keep the prices affordable for the consumer, as well as fair for the farmer. According to the sample spectator menu, published by LOCOG, your cheese sandwich will cost less than £4 and your jacket potato less than £6. There's free drinking water at all venues, and you can even bring a small amount of your own food – although the organisers are concerned that waste packaging from outside may interfere with their carefully colour-coded recycling and composting streams…

All this is set out in the Food Vision, the first comprehensive strategy for sustainable catering at scale. Professor David Russell of The Russell Partnership, a strategic food consultancy, was involved from the outset.

"We realised that no one had ever written such a document, and so our first task was to get a handle on the scale of it. That's when figures like 14 million meals began to loom…! This was in 2008, and so we had to ask ourselves what the main food trends would be in four years' time. As soon as we did that, sustainability became fundamental. There was already a growing interest in where food came from and its nutritional value: people were going for fewer treats but higher quality."

The next question was how to deliver it. David Russell and David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability at LOCOG, brought together a Food Advisory Group to integrate industry into the approach from the outset. It included key sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonalds, the National Farmers Union [NFU] to represent producers, professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the pressure group Sustain, government departments and the environmentalist Rosie Boycott – chairman of the London Food Board. "We were delighted to get a massive collection of specialists round a table to share their thoughts and vision early", says Russell. "It meant the NFU could tell farmers to prepare for Red Tractor standards and organic aspirations, for example, and brought Coca-Cola onside with the plan to provide free drinking water."

The Games offered an opportunity to transform catering at major events

They all recognised that the Games offered a unique opportunity: to transform catering at major events; to showcase British, sustainable and ethical food; and to push the boat out on responsible packaging and waste management. Consultations were carried out with each sector – dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables, and fish – to guarantee quality at reasonable prices.

For Kath Dalmeny, Policy Director of Sustain, "One of the really positive aspects of the Food Vision is its tangibility. You can make bold vision statements, but they're pointless to a caterer. The caterer needs to know – specifically – what they need to do, and because the Vision tackles each food group individually, there can be no confusion about the basic requirements."

The Vision promises to maximise the use of local, seasonal produce, in line with commitments to minimise the carbon footprint of the Games. It doesn't mandate that products are organic, but asks suppliers to buy products certified by the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Marque, Rainforest Alliance and RSPCA Freedom Foods, "where available and affordable". As Russell points out, the suppliers that met these 'aspirational standards' won more points in the procurement process – and those that upped their game can now use their ready supply of organic free-range eggs (for example) as a positive selling point.

"It has put the shoe on the other foot", says Russell. "Before, standards organisations like Red Tractor and Freedom Foods were going to caterers saying, 'Listen to us!'. Now, caterers are going to them."

One area of particular focus was sustainable fish. Those involved in the Vision "wanted to get [this] 100% right" – partly because of the publicity surrounding Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 'Fish Fight' campaign. As such, all wild-caught fish served will meet the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which includes Marine Stewardship Council [MSC] certification.

"We're really pleased that MSC-certified fish is being served at the Olympics this summer", says Toby Middleton, UK Country Manager, MSC. "It's great news for the millions of sports fans who will be travelling to the venues and looking for a classic, traditional British meal between events. Around 8.8 million ticket holders throughout the Games will be offered MSC certified sustainable fish and chips as part of their Olympic experience. That's great news for fans and great news for the oceans."

For Dalmeny, the Vision's firm stance on fish is indicative of the Food Vision's overall strength. This vital move has brought London closer to becoming a Sustainable Fish City, she says, with major organisations signing a pledge to buy sustainable seafood, protecting precious marine environments, fish stocks and livelihoods. Russell agrees: "You now have central Government buying into sustainable fish, from Number 10 to prisons and the armed forces. That's 400,000 meals a year. And some major caterers including Sodexo have come in: that's another 60 million meals a year…"

It's proof that sustainable catering doesn't have to be niche. "At first, lots of people were sceptical about what could be achieved in terms of sustainable food", Dalmeny explains. "There was some resistance to attempting sustainable catering on this level simply because it hadn't been tried before. But it's now widely accepted that LOCOG will deliver on its food promises, and people are, I think, pleasantly surprised."

That's not to say that everything served will be 'deep green'. Sustain would have liked to have seen tougher minimum standards, like the LEAF Marque, for which farmers must go beyond legal minimum requirements to reduce the use of chemicals, make habitats available for wildlife, actively curb pollution and use water more efficiently. Some LEAF Marque produce will be used during the Games, namely potatoes in the Olympic Park South and within the Media Centre.

Stubbs is keen to point out that there are other sustainability factors that must be taken into account when catering for a major one-off event – alongside the environmental criteria. "Our food has to balance affordability and the practicalities of delivering such a complex, large operation for a temporary period. It has to be socially sustainable and affordable, as well as green."

Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation, welcomes the emphasis on Fairtrade products in Games menus. "Fairtrade is all about creating a level playing field for smallholders and workers in global trade", she says. "By asking the catering industry to source Fairtrade-certified products, LOCOG has set new standards for the catering industry for not just this iconic event but future major events – quite a legacy."

McDonald's helped LOCOG source organic milk for its entire spectator catering

The sponsors, including Coca-Cola and McDonald's, have played a big role in taking the sustainability aspirations to scale. Coca-Cola has shown that involving global brands doesn't necessarily mean global imports: 95% of all products it will sell at London 2012 will be manufactured at one of its six sites across the UK. The fast food giant McDonald's, which is responsible for an estimated 10% of the food supplied at the Games, will be using only organic milk, and has helped LOCOG to source organic milk for its entire spectator catering. For LOCOG, the hope is that the Vision's ambitions will rub off on the sponsors in the long term. McDonald's already uses free-range eggs in restaurants across the UK and Europe, and will be sourcing all chicken for the Games from the UK, having initially considered Brazil.

One challenge for the organisers has been the trade-off between the vast scale of this catering project and the aspiration to use smaller, local and regional suppliers. But they saw it as an opportunity to join up the dots between big caterers and SMEs, running a food showcase to give small producers the chance to show their product to big caterers. In addition, explains Russell, "We insisted that if a caterer won a tender to produce a specialist food, a Latin American dish for example, that it would work with an SME with the required skills."

Unfortunately, the success stories of local suppliers and small catering companies have struggled to hit the headlines, due in part to the legal right of the official partners to associate their work with the Games. While brand exclusivity is an essential part of sponsorship, Dalmeny is concerned that the opportunity to encourage good practice by drawing on the work of smaller suppliers isn't missed.

Slow-rearing makes for a longer life and more succulent meat

Red Tractor took on the challenge with Team RT, an educational project which takes farmers into schools to tell children how their food is produced, how quality is assured, and how it travels from the farm to the world stage at the Games. Among the farmers are Alistair and Stuart Butler, from Blythburgh Farm in Suffolk, whose pork is independently audited by vets and the RSPCA in order to gain both the Red Tractor mark and the Freedom Foods mark. They explain that the extra space they give their free-range pigs means they burn off more calories, and so grow at a slower rate than those confined in pens. This slow-rearing, they claim, makes for a longer, happier life and more succulent meat. Their pork is stamped with an exclusive holding number to make it traceable from the farm through to the butcher's counter.

Healthy pigs are one consideration; healthy spectators another. If you're catering for an event celebrating fitness and strength, you can't ignore the nutritional quality of the food. Significant sponsorship from McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Cadbury prompted some to dub it the 'junk food Olympics' – but is this a fair assessment? 'Choice and balance' is one of five main themes in the Food Vision, with the commitment to ensure there is a diverse range of food and beverage for all customers, catering for all dietary and cultural requirements – from vegetarian or gluten-free diets to halal or kosher food – and ensuring it is all high quality, value for money and accessible. Katherine Symonds, Head of Sustainability at Coca-Cola, points out that London 2012 will have the widest range of drinks ever provided at an Olympic and Paralympic Games. Coca-Cola offered only one product in one size at the 1948 Games, compared to 19 this time round.

The company expects that 75% of the drinks it will sell at London 2012 will be low or no-calorie products, such as water, juice or smoothies. Symonds also notes that all of Coca-Cola's carbonated soft drinks, plus Powerade and Glaceau Vitaminwater, will carry Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) information, to enable visitors to make informed decisions about what they drink – and, she says, its branding in venues will reflect the range of drinks on offer.

But once all the spectators have gone home, what will be left? Arguably the most important legacy is that the standards set out in Food Vision have now been adopted by major consultants who write over 90% of event tenders, including The Foodservice Consultants Society International. "Historically, sustainability specifications weren't important or included", says Russell. "This puts sustainability on the front foot: it's no longer just a happy add-on."

Others will carry on the work the Food Advisory Group began, but the Group itself will also carry on. The organisations have come together in a new, independent Food Legacy programme, facilitated by Sustain. Its aim is to help more caterers and food suppliers achieve the ambitions of the London 2012 Food Vision, by offering practical assistance, information and inspiring educational projects – such as trips to help big buyers visit local farms.

When the London 2012 Bid Team sat down in 2004 and began penning its Olympic vision it did so with a blank slate, and incorporating sustainable food into its plans was a pioneering move. "That's to be celebrated", says Dalmeny. "Sure, there is some room for improvement – you won't get something like this perfect the first time around, but the vital thing is that there now exists a solid foundation – and legacy – to build upon. Without having to reinvent the wheel, future events can now, hopefully, raise the sustainability bar higher every time."

Rachel England is a freelance writer and editor specialising in sustainability.

Photos: The Coca-Cola Company ; omgimages / Thinkstock ; Dingley Dell Pork

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