Small steps make a big difference

  • 8th March 2024

Single-use packaging and the carbon footprint of food production and delivery are the biggest issues facing hospital catering teams as they strive to contribute to the NHS’s net zero agenda.

A recent round table event hospital by the Health Estates & Facilities Management Association (HEFMA) and hospital meals provider, Appetito, discussed the challenges facing hospital caterers.

Attended by facilities and sustainability managers and catering bosses, the prevailing view at the event was that regardless of regulatory controls, taking a lead on removing single-use packaging wherever possible and introducing more-sustainable food is something that the NHS, as an anchor institution, needs to do.

Key takeaways included:

  • People want these changes to happen. The public are supportive, so don’t put barriers in place that may not even exist
  • There are different drivers to these issues and pushing a net zero agenda may not be the right approach. For instance, health messaging and healthier life choices by reducing red meat consumption, or reducing the need to empty bins by taking single-use packaging away, may be far more effective. Identify the levers that will appeal within your premises
  • Encourage a culture that welcomes change. With staff, in particular, make it their idea and appreciate their suggestions
  • Don’t over-complicate and don’t try to do too much at once. Little changes and small steps are the way forward. For instance, ‘meat-free Monday’ might be a step too far, while meat in moderation is more acceptable
  • Shout about the good work you are doing. Be more descriptive about dishes and the provenance of ingredients. Storytelling is very important
  • Plastic packaging is not the enemy. Packaging that is designed to be used once and thrown away is the problem
  • Making progress is easier than you think

Don’t hold your breath 

Delegates at the event also discussed the new Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF), which are still awaited.

Expected in 2022, there is now a feeling that these are unlikely to be released during this Parliament.

And they are controversial, with one of the biggest points of contention being that the often-discussed food miles are in fact a small part of the carbon footprint of what we eat and drink.

Of far more importance is what we eat, and when.

One statistic shared with the group was that if a strawberry grower continued to cultivate strawberries out of season in a hothouse, the carbon footprint would be seven times greater than the in-season crop.

There is also a strong view that this needs to be tempered with reality – public sector organisations can, and should, influence where they are able to, and make informed choices to support British produce wherever possible, as well as seasonality. But it is never going to be possible for a hospital to procure everything it needs within an area defined by lines drawn on a map.

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