Making collective catering kitchens more sustainable: lessons learned

Making collective catering kitchens more sustainable: lessons learned


Vredeseilanden wants to change the collective catering from a structural point of view, and give it a more sustainable character. In order to increase the number of entities who commit to sustainable nutrition, 6 years ago Vredeseilanden set up different pilot projects. This article consolidates the most important accomplishments and gives an insight in lessons learned and bottlenecks. This permits other collective catering kitchens to learn and to become more sustainable.

Importance of Out of Home

In todays society more and more people eat out: at work, at school, on the go, in restaurants, hospitals ... This out-of-home segment represents no less than 39% of the nutrition market. Within this sector, collective catering accounts for 35%, which corresponds to 13.6% of the total turnover of nutrition in Belgium. According to Vredeseilanden this means an enormous potential leverage for sustainable changes in the entire out of home sector to influence the eating habits of consumers.

Pilot projects

During the last 6 years, Vredeseilanden has gained expertise in collective catering kitchens within the collective catering by offering counseling to sustain their catering. Through a limited number of gateways the organisation can indeed reach a large number of consumers. The North department of Vredeseilanden started with the guidance of kithens in 2008.

In a first phase Vredeseilanden counseled collective catering kitchens within government services. As of 2010 they also addressed collective catering kitchens of companies (Toyota TME), event catering (Mano Mundo) and commercial catering (Ikea Food). By doing so, a number of best practices was created for each type of kitchen. These best practices inspire similar collective catering kitchens and organisations.

From 2012 to mid-2014 a parallel project was running at the “Katholieke Hogeschool Leuven” (KHL), the Antwerp University (UA) and the “Hogeschool Gent” (HoGent). In addition, early 2013 on request of the POD DO (Federal Institute for Sustainable Development) a counseling programme started with 8 kitchens of the Federal Government Service of Finance (Federale Overheidsdienst Financiën). This happened in close consultation with the new coordinating structure of Fedorest who exploits these federal restaurants since 2013.

In 2014 the remaining ten collective catering kitchens of the FOD Finances entered the counseling programme.

Sustainable food

Sustainability is not just an intrinsic characteristic of certain food; it has above all to do with the way food is handled and used from the production to consumption, on an ecological, social and economic level. If you choose sustainably produced seasonal and local food, vegetarian dishes or sustainable fish, you decrease the ecological footprint.

We also highlights health in this work. Each kitchen complies with the rules and regulations on food safety, and with the HACCP standards. A correct price for all actors in the food chain is essential. Sustainability or “high quality” does not necessarily have to be synonym to “high price”.

Often money is saved by taking measures to decrease waste and meat. To spread this broad vision on sustainability, Vredeseilanden works around six rules of thumb in the different counseling programmes:

  • less meat;
  • local and seasonal products;
  • products from sustainable agriculture;
  • products from fair trade;
  • less food squander and waste;
  • fish from sustainable fishing.

Our approach

Vredeseilanden gives each participating kitchen an intensive and personalised counseling, to fit the needs of each specific kitchen.
The outlined counseling usually covers one year, but depending on the kind of kitchen and its possibilities, this period can be shortened or extended. Three steps can be distinguished. Vredeseilanden offers total support in different ways, for instance by giving info sessions, thematic workshops, searching products and suppliers, communication material, taste happenings ...

1. Analysis or baseline measurement In this baseline measurement the actual work method and the possibilities and limitations of the kitchen are mapped: the kitchen organisation, equipment, type of dishes, customers, pricing, stock management, orders, the current sustainability policy…

2. Action plan Based on this screening, concrete goals are set and included in a year plan.
It is important to work step by step. It is only when the entire kitchen team is convinced of the need to change certain things and when the customers are happy, that the next step is put into action.

3. Establishment of an internal working group A strong internal work group is a key factor to success. This working group includes people of the organisation with different backgrounds and visions with regard to collective catering kitchens. Each of them contribute from their own point of view.
The working group is involved in the base line measurement and its first task is to work out the action plan. The working group has regular meetings during which they discuss, evaluate and if needed, adjust the goals and the changes made.

4. Communication The staff members need to know the background of the sustainability story because they are in direct contact with the customers. In other words, they need to make the customers enthusiastic for this sustainability story.
This does not end with the kitchen staff alone. Also other departments, faculties or management must be involved in the project. It is crucial to inform and to be determined to start a change in conduct in order to succeed in the changes made. To make sure that the results obtained are adopted by other bodies, it is equally important to communicate them in the first place.

5. Evaluation At the end of the counseling a thorough evaluation is done with the people responsible for the kitchen and the members of the work group.
Customers can also be asked for information to get a better insight in the impact of the project. The final report is based on the results and includes recommendations and tips for the future.
In fact the sustainability process never ends. There is nothing like something that is 100% sustainable, it is a continuous search and the kitchen needs to constantly consider the different options.

Lessons learned

  • It is difficult to establish the exact social impact of the catering programme of Vredeseilanden of the last 6 years. An awareness process took place in each of the kitchens that participated in the project.
  • The people involved show an important self-awareness, awareness of the staff members and their customers.
  • The project was positively received in almost all collective catering kitchens.
  • A lot of kitchen managers say that they had expected more resistance but that it never happened.
  • Taste is an important criteria to decide whether a meal is successful. Customers will only continue to buy sustainable meals if the taste can convince them.
  • It is important to focus on the social aspects of the company policy: respect for the human rights, working conditions and development possibilities.
  • It is very important to have a goal-oriented communication on the steps that have been accomplished in order to strengthen the demand for sustainable nutrition. This demands conscience-raising actions focused on a change of behaviour of the end users in the collective catering kitchens. The communication needs to be done on different levels: internally within the kitchen, to the customers and to the outside world.
  • At the time the counseling by Vredeseilanden has stopped, there is a certain dilution. New steps are not taken easily.
  • This means that it is important to pay attention to the necessary follow-up.

Important bottlenecks

  • One of the most important bottlenecks of the past six years seemed to be the limited offer of suppliers providing sustainable products.
  • For large-scale consumers who want to integrate sustainable nutrition in their daily offer, the most important barrier is finding suppliers with a guaranteed delivery and appropriate large-scale packaging.
  • Although almost every kitchen experimented with labelled products, they remain obstacles because of the price. Nevertheless sustainable nutrition does not necessarily mean a price. By focussing on all cornerstones of sustainability, a lot of cost-saving measures are taken.
  • When a collective catering kitchens chooses to use products from fare trade and as a result increases the price of the product, very often this price difference is accepted by the customer. There are no significant complaints from any kitchen.

Upscaling and role of other actors

The ambition of Vredeseilanden is to upscale these pilot experiences. We wants to transcend these pilot projects and dare to dream of a broad sustainability in the collective catering. The pilot projects prove that it is possible to make the daily running in the collective catering kitchens more sustainable. Now one has to make sure that they are copied, multiplied and realised on a larger scale.

It is for that purpose that Vredeseilanden is contacting catering contractors, supplier platforms and the government in order to further explore the possibilities and to design the upscaling. A multi-stakeholder dialogue shows the way forward.

For more information: katharina.beelen [at]

Author: Kaat Van Ongeval