How canteens captivated customers to cut carbon and eat more healthily

By Emily Shankar, Project Manager, Sustainable Restaurant Association

Sustainable Diets

There is a general rule of thumb that foods that are good for our health and wellbeing are the same foods that are good for the planet. Lower impact foods are also the foods that are recommended to make up the bulk of our diets (vegetables, fruits, beans, pulses and whole grains), whereas the highest impact foods are also those that are recommended to be eaten less frequently (dairy, fish, poultry, red meat, and highly processed foods). The term ‘sustainable diet’ describes a way of eating which is good for the planet and our health, and it’s one of the best tools we have to reduce our environmental footprint as a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from food.

The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Double Pyramid combines nutrition and environmental gains.

The evidence is strong that sustainable diets have the capacity to alleviate hunger, obesity, and diet-related disease. Benefits to the environment are far-reaching, affecting climate, biodiversity, water, land and other resources. Eating sustainably also helps to improve local, national and global economies, social inequalities and animal welfare. Simply put, achieving sustainable food production and consumption would solve many of the world’s biggest challenges.

SU-EATABLE LIFE

SU-EATABLE LIFE is a European LIFE funded project that kicked off just over four years ago and ended in February 2022 (after an extension due to the Covid-19 pandemic).  The project team was a consortium of experts from across Europe, led by the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition, with research partner Wageningen University, Italian tech partner GreenApes, and the SRA.  The project was an ambitious look at behavioural science, carbon foot-printing and social apps with the ambition of seeing tangible results in lowering emissions and water footprints and encouraging better diets. SU-EATABLE LIFE was also the first food project funded as a climate impact project for the LIFE fund— a huge step in recognising the role that our diets can play in fighting climate change!

The experiments used visual resources like posters and table cards to inform canteen users of food sustainability issues and guidelines, alongside labeling the most sustainable dish of the day (with 1kg or less CO2eq and 1000L or less water footprint) as a One Planet Plate. Diners were encouraged to download the greenApes app to engage with educational content, complete challenges, and be rewarded for choosing One Planet Plates in their canteen. Challenges were designed with a salutogenic approach (a fancy term for focusing on achieving health and wellbeing through promoting positive behaviours rather than focusing on avoiding ill-health), with the aim of getting people to reflect on their own knowledge and behaviours and to further internalise them. We also wanted to achieve spillover effects so that we not only change the eating habits of canteen users but also that of their family and friends.

SU-EATABLE LIFE guideline
Spiced chapati wraps at the University of Bristol

Results and Key Learnings

SU-EATABLE LIFE is the largest social experiment on food and climate to date, and it succeeded in informing over 59,000 students and 10,000 workers throughout the UK and Italy. The project saved 4,750 tonnes of CO2eq and 1.9 million cubic meters of virtual water, through shifting the choices of 6,500 engaged people.

Key learnings on carbon savings included:

  1. Even one simple change in weekly menus saves carbon and opens the door for other adaptations to diet.
  2. Eating sustainably does not mean giving up enjoyment of food! Instead, introducing a few habits that also benefit health, such as changing the meal composition, balancing portions, adding in more legumes and limiting red meat to once a week, can all be achieved without sacrificing taste.
  3. The idea that health and sustainability are interlinked was reinforced; the frequency of consumption, the style of preparation, and seasonality all contributed to shifting diets toward lower carbon and water consumption.

Key learnings on engagement included:

  1. For diners, make the sustainable options the star of the show, link the meal with something which resonates personally (i.e. supporting a local farm or benefitting one’s health), and encourage action around food.
  2. Understand the importance of empowerment by giving staff a sense of agency and ownership. True participation is developed through daily interaction which sets a sustainable tone for the day and motivates staff to develop new knowledge for personal and professional growth.
  3. Allow staff the tools to adapt existing recipes and the freedom to get creative inventing new sustainable meals.

So, in practice what does all of this mean?

It means that focusing your energy on designing menus around sustainable dishes is a win for both people (your team and your diners) AND the planet. That might sound obvious, but it was amazing to be able to show the European scientific community just how much carbon and water could be saved by shifting our eating habits.

We also saw how powerful a tool this is for engaging staff. When we showed chefs simple information about the different impacts that ingredients had on the planet or on health, they were inspired, and when given agency and ownership over designing better menus they felt more connected both personally and professionally with the subject matter.

And finally, promote promote, promote! All of the canteens that participated in the project used our #oneplanetplate moniker and label to show their diners which dishes were good for the planet. A simple symbol, linked to material accessible on the table or in the engagement app helped nudge diners toward better options.

What can you do next?

Looking to understand your emissions impact? We would love to help you calculate your footprint, set reduction targets and communicate your success through our partnership with Net Zero Now. Interested? Contact [email protected].

Wanting to showcase the sustainable dishes on your menu? Submit your One Planet Plates on our website: www.oneplanetplate.org and start shouting about them to your diners today using #oneplanetplate. Don’t forget to tag us @foodmadegood and @oneplanetplateglobal.

Thank You

We are grateful to the following UK universities, businesses, and caterers for their participation in the SU-EATABLE LIFE project.

  • Artizian Catering
  • City University of London
  • Chartwells
  • Fooditude
  • Graysons
  • Pernod Ricard
  • Queen Mary University of London
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Greenwich
  • University of Worcester
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