A conversation on the sustainable catering program in Belgium

A conversation on the sustainable catering program in Belgium


Katharina Beelen coordinates the sustainable consumption and catering program of VECO in Belgium. With this program, VECO wants to accompany kitchens and mass catering in the public and private sector towards a more sustainable approach. The activities are mainly pursued in Belgium, but they link up to initiatives abroad and contain interesting lessons worth sharing.

When and where did the initiative start? Was it initiated by Vredeseilanden or was it a direct reply to external needs addressed by another institution?

The activities of Vredeseilanden in that sense began in 2009 in Ghent. The capital city of East Flanders had previously launched a pilot project targeted to develop a more sustainable catering within the city. Working closely to the city of Ghent allowed us to learn from each other, since Vredeseilanden had the time and capabilities to conduct action-research, while Ghent itself disposed of fairly clear ideas and knowledge on sustainability in catering.

Our first step in this direction was therefore targeted towards governmental catering: we thought that could have been an example for the Belgian population as a whole. Afterward we decided to continue not only with government bodies’ canteens, but also with catering in other sectors, such as university canteens, hospitals, private companies, …

What are the main characteristics of the project?

We have 6 principles we work with: reduction of meat consumption and vegetarian food, seasonal and local food products, sustainable fish consumption, the promotion of organic and fair trade products and the reduction of food waste and proper waste management. The reduction of meat consumption, the use of seasonal products and proper waste management are also indispensable to limit the costs: the budget is the first thing that the catering sets.

What about the taste? Different food products and combinations also mean different tastes which we are not used to. How about feedback from the consumers?

Before or during the changes in the menu, we let the consumers try the new dishes. To contain com-plains and negative feedback that can arise after the introduction of new dishes, we also propose to form groups to taste the new recipes in advance, directly involving the consumers in the process. We organize surveys in federal restaurants to assess the level of satisfaction of the users during such changes in the menu.

What kind of support does Vredeseilanden provide to the canteen?

We have developed a code of conduct in ten action points, a sort of commitment between Vredeseilanden and the kitchen, containing ten practices to comply with in order to achieve sustainability. One important point is the reduction of food waste. We measure the food waste on different levels, on the level of stock, during the production, and on the consumer level.

Vredeseilanden usually provides guidance to the kitchen for one year, but guidance trajectories may last longer. The first step is to conduct a baseline evaluation in the kitchen in order to assess existing sustainability initiatives. After the survey, we propose an action plan that has to be approved by the institution involved; most of the times it requires some adjustments to be fully endorsed. Through working groups and regular meetings, we deliver theoretical and practical trainings on vegetarian components, additional grains, informative session about new products, as well as culinary trainings offered by a professional chef.

We encourage caterers to ask their suppliers about sustainability criteria in their supply chains. Vredeseilanden searches actively for potential suppliers, and provides insights on sustainable products and food combinations. Caterers often encounter difficulties in finding suitable suppliers for sustainable food products. That is how the initiative “Your Choice” was born, an initiative of Vredeseilanden in partnership with Max Havelaar and Bioforum. The first edition of Your Choice in 2010 was a food fair where suppliers able to deliver big quantities can convey. Since then, this fair is organized every two years. In between the editions, Your Choice is organized with roundtables and information sessions during a one-day network event, the 13th of May this year, with a speed dating between suppliers and caterers.

How important is the role of communication for Vredeseilanden within this project?

Communication is certainly an important aspect of our strategy. While trying to edit the kitchens’ catering choices, we also aim to change the behavior of their customers, informing them about the plentiful possibilities of sustainable food. In October 2013 we participated in the annual Fair Trade event together with Oxfam, Max Havelaar, aiming to promote fair trade products and communicate to consumers on sustainability.

How is the Fair Trade Towns (FairTradeGemeenten) campaign (co-owned by Vredeseilanden) linked to the sustainable catering program?

In order for a municipality to be declared “Fair Trade Town”, the town should have accomplished five goals. Vredeseilanden and the partner organisations added one more criteria to the international FairTradeTown campaign, and thus raised the number of the goals to six. Cities and towns have to organize activities to promote promote sustainability, both on production and consumption sides. In Flanders 200 out of 300 communities are active in this campaign, and 150 have already obtained the title of fair trade town. Recently, we introduced a new challenge for the cities that already gained the title: institutions active to making catering more sustainable can gain up to five stars.

What about dealing with big private companies? What is your degree of involvement?

We have worked with Ikea and Toyota, among others. International companies have their own com-plete policy and vision about sustainability, and they make sustainability reports related to environmental and social responsibility… but they often forget their own catering! The process in such cases can be very time-consuming, due to the international rules that they are obliged to comply with, and that cannot be changed because dictated from above. Vredeseilanden is therefore working with the local company branches, but it is a long-term path towards change. Other challenges that arise are the logistical requirements: all of these kitchens have to plan the menu offer in advance, find their supply with suppliers that can be able to meet the quantities demanded, often leaving organic suppliers behind. Regarding the public bodies, they must issue a public procurement and follow a certain protocol when looking for products and suppliers.

Do you have an idea about to what extent are the people aware of the importance of more sustainable meals and food products in their daily life?

We have observed how awareness related with the importance of vegetarian and seasonal products is widely spread amongst the consumers. Attitude towards a sustainable diet is often well perceived, however the critical issue lies in the consumers’ behavior that is often contradictory: “Seasonal prod-ucts are very important to me, but I do want tomato in the winter”.