You might not think that a plate of food served to a schoolchild in Scotland has the potential to change the world but you’d be wrong. The food that children eat in dinner halls, the buying of the ingredients, cooking and delivering them to hungry mouths across the country is a microcosm of sustainability in action. Research conducted by the Business School on the subject is also showing some surprising findings that have parallels and implications across business fields.
For the last few years, two of the School’s academics have been working on research into the sustainability of public sector food procurement, in particular by schools in Scotland and England.
Professor Mary Brennan has been with the School since November 2013 and has been Professor of Food Marketing and Society since August 2017. A food consumer researcher, she explores the complex, dynamic relationships people have with food and how these shape everyday food practices and underpin contemporary food policy challenges.
Mary says: "There’s a sense that we need to do something that addresses the quality of the food we are serving in schools in terms of nutritional quality. Where it is coming from, how it is being produced and the relationship between production and sourcing. Or even, heaven forbid, whether it’s tasty.
“The public sector is a huge purchaser of food and they can set the tone for sustainable practices. At the moment they don’t set a brilliant tone – I think that’s the polite way of saying it.”
Professor Angela Tregear – who joined the University in 2005 and was appointed Professor of Marketing in 2018 – said the research that she is doing with Mary shows that while the public sector has its faults, the scale of it and the way that big ideas can be put into practice makes it important.
“We are particularly interested in looking at the supply chains driven by public sector procurement because public sector procurement is an important constituent part of the overall supply system,” says Angela about the work, which is a part of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
“Being public sector, there is an opportunity for policy makers and actors within that system to have a direct impact on what goes on because they have more control over it than what happens in the private sector.”
The work that Mary and Angela are doing focuses on primary school meals, looking at the carbon, economic, social, and nutritional sustainability of those supply chains from primary production right through to the plate waste.
Surprisingly, their research shows that what’s on the plate has a greater influence on sustainability than how it got there.
Angela says: “The main thing that we’ve found is that what really makes a difference to the carbon footprint of the supply chains is what is actually on the menu rather than where the food comes from.
“Often in the public sphere and public debates, there’s a lot of focus put upon the food miles issue and the imperative to try and reduce that. What we have found is that local transportation of food to schools is a pretty small part of the overall carbon footprint of the food that’s served.”
Angela continues: “Most of the carbon emissions relate to the production and processing of the particular food items. So, if one is seeking to reduce environmental impact of the food that is being delivered, then there’s more to be gained by adjusting what is on the menu rather than where the particular food items come from.”
On the subject of figuring out the carbon footprint of recipes in schools, Angela and Mary are working on a parallel project, led by research fellow Dr Maysara Sayed, to develop a ‘carbon calculator’ tool which caterers could use when planning meals.
It’s an approach that the School has developed for the construction industry in partnership with Costain.
Practices which could be better just carry on not being terribly good because it’s hard to have those awkward conversations with people.Professor Angela Tregear, Personal Chair in Marketing
Back in the dining hall, forgetting about the consumer is where things start to unravel – something that all businesses could relate to. “It is hit and miss whether the children at the centre are viewed as customers,” says Mary.
Failing to see the situation, quite literally, from the child’s point of view can neglect some obvious ways of improving the service. “We’ve found service lines that are too high for the smallest children to actually see what is there. They’re having to move fast and don’t have the time to evaluate the array of options in front of them,” she explains.
Angela adds: “The lack of time in the canteen and the fact that it’s very noisy makes it almost like the perfect environment to not sit and eat. It’s a positive disincentive – they just want to get in and get out as fast as they can. Unsurprisingly then, there’s lots of plate waste.”
Treating the pupils as customers also includes staffing the dinner halls with enough people to engage the children with the food they’re eating, and having the time to do so. “You will have some canteens where the kitchen staff are interacting very enthusiastically with the children,” Angela explains. “They’ll provide small amounts of food for the children to taste, they’ll kind of adapt what’s being offered or served because they get to know the children and they have a very good, structured relationship with the teaching staff.
“Then in other canteens in other schools the kitchen staff see the kitchen as their territory, a ‘you shall not pass’ kind of mentality.” With this defensive attitude, Angela finds, there isn’t an openness to change. “You have people who have been doing things in a certain way for a very long time. Practices which could be better just carry on not being terribly good because it’s hard to have those awkward conversations with people.”
Mary backs this up: “School canteen staff, many of whom are paid only the minimum living wage, are not given the support, time, space, equipment, resources and autonomy to think and make changes about how they could make school meal service better in their schools.”
It’s clear that if you cut budgets to the absolute minimum it makes it very hard for the people involved to deliver a quality service. But surprisingly, when Mary and Angela looked at two UK case studies, more money being spent wasn’t the be all and end all.
“We have one example where the true cost per meal is about half that of the other one and yet the lower cost case study actually performs much better in terms of carbon footprint, social impact, and local economic multiplier,” Angela says.
“I think that budget can be important but it’s also factors such as the management processes and people involved that can really make a difference. If you have the right goals, the right targets, a good system and good people then you can actually achieve a hell of a lot without necessarily throwing lots and lots of cash at it.”