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.