‘Making the Right Choice Easy’

The University of Cambridge’s bold initiative to cut carbon emissions

In 2016, the University Catering Services (UCS) at the University of Cambridge pressed go on a sustainable food policy

The 14 cafes and canteens across the city and 1,500 hospitality events that the university hosts each year would look – and taste – slightly different. 

> Beef and lamb no longer featured on the menus.
> Plant-based dishes were moved into more prominent position on the menus.
> Fish was swapped for more sustainable options. 

Nick White, Head of the UCS, said:
‘I knew that we should be doing more to actively promote the consumption of more sustainable food to reduce our damage to the environment and to help encourage positive lifestyle changes, which would lead to a positive impact on health and well-being of our students and staff. For us it was about making the right choice easy for our customers. I felt a big responsibility to do something about it, I knew it was down to me to start our journey.’

And it truly was a journey for everyone involved.

Nick worked with his team so everyone understand why they were making changes and what the impacts were for the environment and personal health. He made sure the chefs had training in plant-based ingredients and dishes. He even took them to Borough Market in London to get inspiration on seasonal produce. 

Some of the dishes students and guests might now find on the menu are smoky Moroccan chickpea stew with saffron infused couscous, Swedish style veg balls with mash and creamy mustard sauce or a sweet potato burger. 

The results have been incredible. 

Comparing a three-month period in 2015 with the same period in 2018, the UCS has cut food-related carbon emissions by 33% and reduced land use per kilogram of food purchased by 28%. 

Chickpea stew

Professor Andrew Balmford, who advised the UCS on the sustainable food policy, said:
‘It is hard to imagine any other interventions that could yield such dramatic benefits in so short a span of time.’

Despite the increase in food costs, the students kept coming back. Not only has footfall through the food outlets remained stable, the UCS has increased their gross profits. 

Catering Manager Paula White said:
‘If you go to most restaurants, they’ll put a ‘V’ for vegetarian or label something as vegan. We didn’t do that, we just put what’s in it. You use your eyes, your nose. If you look at something and think “Wow, that looks good:, you’re not first of all thinking “Is there beef in that?”‘

The UCS has also reduced their food waste and has switched to glass bottles, cans or bio-degradable bottles instead of selling single-use plastic bottles. That’s 30,000 plastic bottles that won’t end up in landfill. 

With news last month that Goldsmiths, University of London was also banning red meat as part of their efforts to become carbon neutral by 2025, this shows that individuals and organisations can make a difference. 

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