This summary was written by Oxford University ECI-funded intern Aaron Hanson.
With one third of British households’ food budgets being spent on eating outside of the home, there is tremendous potential to effect positive changes to the nation’s food system by focusing on improving practices in public institutions such as hospitals, as well as restaurants, cafés and other private establishments. This applies to what happens both before and after food gets on to the plate; research indicates that for every meal eaten in a British restaurant, an average of half a kilo is wasted, with uneaten leftovers accounting for nearly a third of this. Food waste not only constitutes lost income for British families – equating to about £700 per year for an average household with children – but it also contributes to various environmental problems, especially when sent to landfill.
In light of such considerations, The Student Consultancy (TSC), a programme which is run by the University of Oxford’s Careers Service, was commissioned to produce a report on food-waste practice at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), one of the University’s constituent colleges. Between them, these colleges (38 in total) are estimated to spend over £20 million per annum on food, providing a considerable proportion of the meals eaten in the city. LMH alone serves roughly 3,000 meals each week during term-time. A team of six students from TSC spent about five weeks conducting interviews, surveys and site visits to several colleges before putting together a report of their findings.
The team’s overall conclusion was that LMH is certainly among the best colleges in Oxford in terms of how it deals with food waste, with an average of 91g of food waste generated per meal. This resulted from a variety of factors and practices:
- Left-over meals: unserved meals are refrigerated safely using appropriate technology in order to be served the next day at reduced prices. In short, today’s dinner becomes tomorrow’s lunch.
- A meal-booking system for some meals which means that the kitchen staff can predict how many servings need to be prepared. Students are incentivised to turn up and eat what they have already paid for.
- Fast-cooking equipment which enables batches of food to be served at the time of serving as numbers require, rather than having to be made in advance based on what may end up as over-estimates.
The team suggested a number of improvements to further consolidate LMH’s good record; one suggestion was that a meal-booking system be applied more widely, but surveys indicated that student opinion was against this. Another suggestion was reducing the frequency of unpopular dishes (principally fish-based ones), which again illustrates the difficulty of achieving ‘win-win’ solutions given that fish are recommended as a key part of healthy diets. Balancing sustainability, customers’ satisfaction, healthy eating and financial constraints is always a tricky job for catering businesses, but LMH seems to be doing a good job overall and can be looked to by similar institutions – university or otherwise – as an example to follow.