The Green Canteen

Several years ago, well before the pandemic, I was in London at the UK headquarters of an international bank. After the meeting, I was invited for lunch at the staff canteen. Thinking back, it felt like stepping into the future.

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The Green Canteen

Inside the modern, airy dining area, there was no sign of single-use plastics – everything that was disposable was fully compostable – plates, cutlery, straws, containers. There was a wide and appetising range of vegetarian and vegan meals, and rather than offering sweet, sticky puddings, there were piles of fresh fruit on offer. Food waste collection and recycling points were clearly marked. I spoke to my host about this, who was proud that his employer had recently revamped the dining area with a view to employees’ health and fitness – and the green agenda, which was beginning to play a part in corporate strategies.

We are what we eat. There’s been a clear shift in attitude among people – especially the youngest generation entering the labour market – about human diet and its effect on the environment. The harmful effects on biodiversity, the atmospheric methane emissions and the amount of water consumed by beef farming is becoming widely acknowledged, as is the importance of proper nourishment and exercise.

Staff canteens such as the one I visited can play a big role in shaping employees’ attitudes to food. Homer Simpson yelling “hello, taste – where are you?” at a rice cracker reflects the stereotypical concern of the average omnivore that a journey toward a healthier and more environmentally friendly diet is going to be dull. Yet a good chef, using the right seasonings, herbs and spices in imaginative recipes, can prepare vegan meals that truly delight the palate. Doing so in a staff canteen, where hundreds of meals are served each day, can play a major role in persuading employees to eat less meat at work – and indeed at home. Inspired by what they’ve enjoyed in the office, employees may well try something more adventurous – and healthy – for themselves.

More and more people are turning their backs on a meat-heavy diet, for health reasons or because they care about the environment. Or, as was almost exclusively the case a generation ago – because of concerns for animal welfare. The ‘flexitarian’ option is a relatively easy way for most – cutting back on meat consumption, keeping a juicy beefsteak or pork chop as a rare treat, and easing meat away from being a daily staple. Free-range chicken is far better for the environment than beef.
Just as supermarkets are beginning to offer more nutrition advice to shoppers (certainly far more in the UK than here in Poland), staff canteens should also provide information to employees as to their lunch choices – not only in terms of nutrition, but also carbon footprint. Farmed prawns, for example, cause more damage to the environment than pork. Providing credibly sourced information regarding lunch choices needs to be done hand-in-hand with the changes being introduced – we are replacing x with y for the following reasons – you can feel good about your health and your impact on the environment.

Most firms that have their own staff canteens will outsource this function; feeding the workforce is after all not their core business. Some of the big caterers will be well advanced upon this journey – others may have not even begun to consider the environmental implications of the service they provide.

Any employer wishing to drive the green agenda this way should organise a meeting with the catering provider to see how much can be done. The change needs to be introduced in a well-thought-through way so that everyone understands why it is for the good; a change of canteen décor at the same time might also be a good idea – replacing garish plastics with toned-down natural wood.

Smaller firms that don’t have the scale for a staff canteen might have a preferred food provide who brings sandwiches or microwavable meals at lunchtime. Again, choice of such a supplier, aiming for one that does more than place a slice of ham between two slices of bread, would be a useful step to take.
The journey to win employees’ hearts and minds can begin at their tastebuds!

Day 1: BPCC’s green blog on COP 26 in Glasgow
Day 2: Methane emission pledge hailed as success on second day of COP26
Day 3: Coal and climate finance are the focus of the third day of COP26
Day 4: Youth activism flavours fourth day of COP26
Day 7: Barack Obama’s speech highlighted start of second week of COP26
Day 8: Gender equality – focus of eighth day of COP26 – overshadowed by new heat calculation
Day 10&11: China-US ‘breakthrough’ as final statement is hammered out
Summary: COP26 disappoints with the loss of strong commitment