Sustainability in Oxford University College Canteens

by Cristina Stewart

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Changing how vegetarian food choices are presented can reduce demand for meat, which in turn could improve people’s health and help the environment. We spoke to catering managers and head chefs at four Oxford college canteens to find out more about their environmental initiatives and attitudes to increasing the sustainability of the food they offer.

The University of Oxford has an Environmental Sustainability Strategy which aims to achieve net-zero carbon and biodiversity net gain in the next 15 years. Although the colleges are not part of the strategy formally, many have a great interest in achieving similar sustainability goals. My colleagues and I know that college canteens could play a significant role in helping achieve these targets, because the food we eat has a big impact on the planet

All four colleges had already been actively trying to increase the sustainability of their food, and interestingly, it was students who had sparked this movement by raising concerns about climate change. Colleges said it was critical to involve students in decisions about environmental strategies. For instance, before increasing the proportion of vegetarian evening meals that were offered, one head chef ran a survey to gauge the response. Spoiler: the students were on board, they went ahead with the initiative and they reported the average take-up of veggie options increased by more than a quarter!

In three colleges, students had suggested ‘Meat Free Monday’ following the popular social media campaign. Canteen staff were reluctant to pursue this as they didn’t want to remove choice from canteen users and they didn’t want to “force” individuals to eat vegetarian meals. A difficulty shared by all canteen staff was, understandably, they don’t want to upset students, staff or fellows who eat in their canteens or be in a position to restrict choices.

- “What right has the College, or me as the catering manager, got to say “It’s Monday, you have got to eat vegetarian”?"

- "If this [strategy] was implemented without speaking to the fellows, there would be a hoo-ha.”

The colleges were keen to try initiatives that didn’t completely remove meat options. All had tested repositioning their vegetarian options to more prominent spots on the menu and on the pass where the food is served.

We know from our research and from similar work published by Cambridge University that this is a promising strategy to reduce demand for meat. One college said this simple strategy led to a reduction of meat dishes by around a third. The other colleges were not able to tease apart the effect on the sales of veggie options as other strategies were implemented around the same time.

My colleague Dr Christina Potter has led three studies looking at the effect of environmental sustainability labelling on food selection, and two colleges were very interested in this work and open to piloting something in their canteens. Using creative names for vegetarian dishes that highlight flavour, provenance and appearance – instead of calling something ‘vegetarian’ ‘vegan’ or ‘meat-free’ is believed to boost sales of plant-based items. I learned that two colleges had already tried renaming vegetarian dishes: dropping the terms ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ and focusing on what the dish was made of. The other two colleges said they would like to learn more and were keen to work with us in the future on a naming trial.

“With every will in the world, with a busy kitchen, we’re not the ones to think of the names”

Of course, there are other ‘nudge’ strategies that canteens could try:

  • One of my colleagues has shown that reducing portion size of meat servings, improving the appearance of veggie options and providing veggie alternatives with supporting educational material may reduce demand for meat.
  • Social norm messaging’, which promotes social acceptability of vegetarian dishes may increase consumption of meat-free meals.  Here colleges could place signs in their canteen and/or menus stating “This is the favourite flexitarian choice within our college” or “70% of our staff and students are trying to reduce the amount of meat in their diet!”

Chatting with the catering managers and head chefs was insightful and I was impressed with the number of strategies they had already tried – and how open they were to trying new ideas. It was also interesting to hear how much they involved their students and other canteen users in the decision process.

Our conversations reaffirmed that college canteens are a promising setting to help the university reach its environmental sustainability goals and that there is a drive within the colleges to lower the environmental impact of their meals. It was helpful to be able to talk openly about their key challenges and where they see potential for collaboration with our Health Behaviours team at LEAP. As workplaces and canteens start to open up post-lockdown, we hope we can come together and share our areas of expertise to continue the great work they have already started.