December 3, 2023

The University of Cambridge – Food for thought

As befits one of the world’s most highly respected education institutions, the University of Cambridge has an equally impressive in-house catering operation, the University Catering Service (UCS), which helps meet the needs of a 19,000-strong student body that includes 3,700 international students drawn from 120 countries.

With 14 outlets throughout the city, the UCS offers three distinct services: support for University activities through the provision of services and rooms at the University Centre, cafés and hospitality catering across the University, and advisory services. The latter includes assisting with letting and managing of hospitality contracts, providing the interface between departments and contractors and offering expert catering advice on everything from new building projects to University policies, such as sustainability and food safety.

Underlining its leading approach, the University has taken a particularly strong stance on sustainability, as Nick White, head of the UCS, explains: “We recently published Our Sustainable Food Journey report, which showcases our success in lowering carbon emissions. We made the decision to perform research on our changes in October 2018 and started working on it in February 2019.

“The research showed that we reduced our carbon emissions by 33% per kilogram of food and reduced our land use by 28% per kilogram of food purchased. The main way we have achieved this is by eliminating ruminant meat from our menus. This change was made on the suggestion of our academics including Professor Andrew Balmford, who said that research shows that ruminants create the most greenhouse gases of any livestock. We have also lowered our purchasing of all other meats, with a sharp increase in the amount of plant-based foods, including pulses and beans, purchased. To complement these changes, we make sure we sell only sustainable fish and we’ve reduced the amount of food waste we produce.”

To further support its approach, the University organised visits to Borough Market and other venues that did great vegetarian food. Some of its chefs also went on vegan cookery classes and it encouraged its chefs to research recipes and test them. The trialled new dishes were highly praised, which consequently made the chefs more enthusiastic. Knowing their dish would be sold around the University gave them a real sense of ownership.

“We taught café managers key merchandising techniques, which had been modified to promote sustainability rather than profit,” adds Mr White. “Surprisingly quickly everyone adapted and engaged with the project.

“The students also received the change well and were keen to see similar alterations in their Colleges. As the 31 Cambridge Colleges all make independent decisions on their catering, being able to present a workable example of success from our own perspective gives us an opportunity to influence them on the issue of sustainable food, while also collaborating with them to share best practices they may have already adopted. For instance, we’ve worked with the Colleges to run two ‘Vegan Pop Up’ events on the main University sites, providing free taster meals of vegan food to staff and students to help promote the exciting new recipes and resulting environmental benefits more widely. These events were both massively popular, with excellent feedback from attendees, and the food itself was snapped up much quicker than we anticipated!”

Thanks to the success of its approach, the UCS has attracted national recognition in the form of various sustainability awards, as Mr White highlights: “Since the creation of our Sustainable Food Policy in 2016 we’ve won a TUCO Award for Sustainability and a Green Gown Award in the Food and Drink category. Not only does this make me extremely proud to be working in the UCS, it also encourages us as a team to keep making sustainable changes because we now know they will work.

“We won the awards as a result of our actions outlined in the Sustainable Food Policy. While we did not know the exact amount of carbon that we had saved, we were able to apply through other measures. These included the introduction of Vegware (plant-based disposables), which enabled us to start collecting for food waste in particular, as these disposables are able to be composted with food in anaerobic digestion. A major benefit of this is that it reduced our waste being sent to landfill.

“Reducing coffee cup waste was also a success. We introduced the sale of KeepCups and introduced a discount on hot drinks when a customer brings their own KeepCup (this has now been changed to a cup tax, where a customer is charged for using a disposable cup). Discounted hot drinks made up for around 10% of hot drink sales. We also recycled coffee grounds to be turned into coffee logs, which are more environmentally friendly than burning wood logs.

“For us at the UCS, it was a moment when we realised that our changes make a difference. We all felt incredibly proud of our achievements and are hopeful that they encouraged other organisations to adopt similar actions.”

As it looks to keep the momentum going, the University is aiming to make further improvements. “We are aiming to increase greater uptake of the Sustainable Food Policy by the 31 Colleges,” concludes Mr White. “Predictions show that if Colleges replace all ruminant meat with poultry and pork, this would lead to a 64% decrease in carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of 597.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per term.

“It is important for the University of Cambridge to be a leader in combatting climate change and in the short term our aims include encouraging others to adopt similar actions. Now that we have the results of our policy changes, we are also keen to start letting our customers know about the benefits.

“In the longer term, the University has targets to become zero carbon by 2048 and we must adapt our behaviour to reflect this. This would also mean that in the long-term we become a zero carbon business.”

Given how far it has come in such a short period of time, the University of Cambridge looks well on track to meet the targets it has set itself. Hopefully other institutions will follow its lead.