Sustainable Food? Great, But at What Cost?

Mention a local and sustainable food program to most chefs and food service operators and you might see a glazed look in their eyes. Or worse yet, they’ll start to shake, stutter and break out in a cold sweat, mumbling something about “costing too much”, as they look for any way out of the conversation. In my own experiences converting conventional food programs into more sustainable models, I’ve not only experienced these anxious symptoms myself – I’ve found a tonic to help cure them.

Definition

Sustainable food promotes environmental, economic, social and nutritional well being. However in terms of exact models of a sustainable food program, whether in a school system, hospital, restaurant or university there are no two that are, nor should be, alike. Locale; fiscal and physical limitations; staff size and skill level; are just a few of the factors that make this type of program hard to duplicate. However, when it comes to dollars and cents, every establishment shares the same common denominators – food, labor, and other expenses. It’s these realities that will ultimately be affected – up or down, and can ensure a program’s success.

The Real Cost of Food

The difference of purchasing sustainably produced food compared to that of conventional food is likely going to be higher. And it should be! For too long we’ve been paying a hidden cost for “cheap food” and that cost is starting to rear its ugly head in untold environmental, health and small business tragedies. Small to midsized farmers and producers deserve a fair price for their toils and we need to give it to them. The good news is that there is a way to lessen the impact on our bottom line and support these artisans at the same time.

Many get confused about how much more this will cost. Let’s set some facts straight – The cost of food generally averages about one third of our total expenses, therefore any change to buying more sustainable foods will in reality only impact a portion of our total budget. This, compounded by fact that there is little chance one will replace every single ingredient with a sustainable counterpart, means that changes in food costs will be no more than a percentage of the percentage of your total operating costs.

The food service industry has created its own monster. For years we’ve been reacting to customer dissatisfaction by offering quantity rather than quality. We add more options, increase the size of the menu, the size of the food court, the size of everything – including portions! Well guess what? Customers are often still unhappy. What’s needed is to place more focus on fewer choices. And the results that can be expected? Less waste, more attention to detail, more resources for higher quality product.

Labor Costs

Just like food, labor expenses and the staffing levels required to produce sustainable food will fluctuate with the extent of the program. Fresh, whole foods require more “hand work” than processed food does. However what many don’t stop to realize is that with some strategic menu planning, you can economize labor. If staffing levels were designed to produce a menu loaded with lots of options, then a reduction of those choices and a focus on the quality not quantity of ingredients will allow balancing the workload.

But be aware of the staff’s skill levels. For too long, many so called “cooks” have become complacent in their particular art. Those who had culinary skills in the first place, may have forgotten or misplaced them with the advent of highly processed foods. In addition, over the last several decades there has been an influx of lesser skilled labor in the food service industry – it doesn’t require a lot of talent to open up boxes and cans and work an assembly line kitchen. Teaching staff to properly handle all this new and wonderful food is critical. What good is an investment in better food, if the customer gets served poorly prepared and presented food? Investment in restructuring and training of staff cannot be overlooked, less the ultimate result will end in a lot of wasted of time and money.

Other Costs

Other costs like infrastructure, equipment, marketing and consultative resources must be considered when addressing a more sustainable food program. But just as in food and labor costs, these need not break the bank either. By systematically reviewing the entire food chain, from purchasing, through service, one will realize opportunities as well as limitations, ultimately creating a menu that uses ingredients that will fit your business model.

And don’t go it alone! Would a brain surgeon start his practice without an education? Would you hire a chef that has no experience in the kitchen? Then why attempt a sustainable food program without tapping into the best resources? Look for organizations well connected in the agricultural field. Utilize the many Farm-to Chef and Farm-to-School programs that exist on a statewide and national level. Hire a resource to help get it right. One thing I hear most often as I go around the food service world, is “Oh, we know how to do that ourselves. We don’t need any help” Well if that’s the case, why are there are so few truly sustainable food programs out there?

Ultimately, a sustainable food program might cost a bit more, but it will realize peripheral savings as well. I’ve seen kitchens eliminate disposable tableware and implement composting programs; then go on to save money on trash removal and supply costs. I’ve witnessed increased employee health and morale due to new ways of working and living, not to mention the increase in sales due to the public demand for this.

On the one hand, engaging in the process of prioritizing sustainability is not an easy undertaking. On the other, any conventional food service program fortunate enough to be led by individuals who have the courage and willingness to invest in knowledgeable resources, training and dedicated effort, will reap the abundant benefits of this new food movement. So wipe that sweaty brow, stop mumbling about costs and stand up to this opportunity. There will ultimately be a very large return for everyone, on such a modest investment.