9 sustainable food projects for your university

Sustainable food is a key practice of becoming a sustainable university. Learn more about what sustainable food is and what projects you can implement to make the food at your university more local, organic and fair trade.

Elements of sustainable food

Before diving into our ideas for sustainable food projects, let’s explore what is actually meant by the term ‘sustainable food’.

Question to you: Are regional, organic apples that are stored in a freezer over winter, more sustainable than apples that come by boat from New Zeeland? Answer: It depends.

When talking about sustainable food you need to consider their different impacts on people and the environment. As the graphic below illustrates, you might think about health and well-being, fair and equitable production, ecological footprint, food security and accessibility.

CO2 emissions are one of the major contributors to climate change

Sustainability in food touches on different issues

Since you have to consider these different factors, it is sometimes difficult to determine which food is more sustainable, and you will always encounter uncertainty and debate as a result. That is why it is important that you identify your goals and what trade-offs you’re willing to make:

  • Do you want to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Do you want to improve the nutritional value of food?
  • Are fair and equitable working conditions important for you?
  • Or do you want to optimise all three goals?

Once you identify your goals, you can select food that meets those and what trade-offs you’re willing to make.

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Rules of thumb to guide your choice

We just established that the sustainability of food always depends on different factors. Still, you can use certain rules of thumb to help guide you:

Seasonality and locality

  • Unseasonal and non-local food often has higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to seasonal and local food. This is the case because unseasonal food is in most cases stored in freezers and non-local food needs to be transported. However, in both cases the difference in emissions is not as high as changing what type of food you eat.
  • Local food often offers better and direct economic benefits to the local community, though it might be more expensive to the consumer and inefficient.
  • Depending on where your food is produced, non-local food can also create excessive water usage. For example, the oranges that are used to produce the orange juice you drink for breakfast, might grow in warm countries that already suffer from water shortage.

Organic food

  • Organic food is generally healthier and better for biodiversity, because fewer pesticides are used during production.
  • Organic food generally requires higher land usage.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are difficult to assess and results differ, but according to some studies, organic food might have higher CO2 emissions.

Vegetarian and vegan diets

  • If you switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet or reduce your meat and dairy consumption, you can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, land use and diseases linked to your food.
  • What is the case for you, also accounts for your university: introducing more vegetarian or vegan dishes offers more choices to students and staff, and also improves the overall environmental impact of the cafeteria.

What standards exist to recognise sustainable food?

You might already be confused by the different labels for sustainable food. It is important not to fall for labels that aren’t externally audited. Here are some of the most trusted labels in circulation and what they stand for:

Common sustainability labels for food products

Name Logo Description Focus
EU Organic farming EU organic farming logo Organic label established by the European Union. Within the EU no product may be sold as “organic” without meeting its standards. Planet: organic agriculture.
Fairtrade International International non-governmental organisation promoting fair trading and business. People and planet: main focus of improving living conditions of producers. Promoting sustainable development and fighting poverty.
EKO (Netherlands) Label for fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, dairy, coffee, tea and chocolate. It requires the EU organic standards to be met, as well as additional criteria. People and planet: energy use, packaging, fair business and more.
Beter Leven (Netherlands) Label by the Dutch organisation for the protection of animals in the meat and dairy industry. Animals: living conditions of animals.
Demeter (Germany) German organic association with a long tradition. Planet: organic agriculture, circular economy, biodiversity, soil and animal welfare. Higher standards than EU organic.
Soil Association (UK) Largest organic certification in the UK. Planet: organic agriculture, aquaculture, focus on inputs and biodiversity. High animal welfare standards.
The Rainforest Alliance Alliance of conservation and rural development organisations. People and planet: biodiversity, conservation, improved livelihood and well-being, effective planning and farm management.
Marine Stewardship Council Label assessing if fisheries are well-managed and sustainable. Planet: focus on sustainable wild fisheries, particularly biodiversity and minimizing environmental impact.
UTZ Non-governmental label focussing on environmentally and socially responsible farming. People and planet: safeguarding environmental and social criteria.

Sustainable food projects for your university

We compiled the below list of sustainable food projects you can implement at your university based on different Green Office projects.

(1) Map your university food system and practices

As a first sustainable food project, you might want to map out your university food system and practices. This can help you to understand how the system works, what is already going well and who makes decisions about food purchasing that you might want to influence. This can take the form of a graphic food system map like the one of Utrecht University below:

Check whether (parts of) the catering services at your university are run by the university itself or whether they have been outsourced. Figure out who the suppliers are and which criteria they may already follow (see an example from Utrecht here). You can find a full explanation of how to create such a map here.

(2) Identify leverage points

Based on your food system map you can identify where the leverage points exist to realise the biggest changes.

For example, if the university subsidises meals heavily – they may have an interest in this food being sustainable and may even be willing to spend extra money on it. If the caterer is already supposed to be more sustainable than they are, the university may be interested in enforcing its contract.

If the students and staff pay full price for meals and the caterer is free to pretty much do what they please, it is more important to deal with the caterer directly and work on consumer preferences.

(3) Lobby the caterer or university

Often the food offered at universities is outsourced. As a university of a certain size, you will have to apply the tendering rules of your country or region. In the European Union those are the EU rules. That means that a public call is put out where different companies can apply to become the caterer for the university. The university then has to hire the company that does best on paper.

You get two chances to have an impact:

  1. You can try to lobby your university to include sustainability criteria in the tendering process before a new tender is published.
  2. You can lobby a caterer to adopt more sustainable food practices while they have an ongoing contract. This has been done quite successfully by Green Offices in Maastricht, Utrecht and Wageningen. If you want to be involved in lobbying like this, it may be a good idea to read about European tender processes.

(4) Run events and campaigns to promote sustainable food

If you decide to pick students and staff as the leverage point, a great practice is to run events and campaigns to encourage more sustainable food consumption at your university. A common practice is to start sustainable food university campaigns to encourage voluntary Meatless Mondays, vegan weeks or other sustainable habits. A great example is the SusTasty food festival by Green Office Utrecht. Another option is to screen a sustainability documentary related to food, and to then discuss this topic with participants. To get started, you can learn more about how to engage students on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Student Green Office Canterbury Christchurch - Presenting the Green Office

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(5) Improve labelling of products

Your caterer might already offer sustainable food at your university. However, these might not be clearly labelled or promoted. Better labelling helps students and staff to know which products to buy, if they want to make the more sustainable food choices. However, you have to be careful not to engage in greenwashing, by for example promoting labels with low sustainability standards.

(6) Avoid and improve packaging

A major issue with catering is always the packaging of products. Often people focus on reducing the amount of packaging, switching from plastic to paper and switching from disposable to non-disposable cutlery. These measures can be very helpful, but are not always the right choice.

It is usually more important, for example, to use mono-stream recyclable packaging (made from only one type of material) and to have recycling facilities close by. (It is generally better to use plastic if it gets recycled than to use paper that is not recycled – see their GHG emission conversion factors).

It may also be better to use sustainable disposables from companies like vegware instead of switching to reusables. You can find more tips of how to boost recycling at your university in our previous blogpost on recycling.

(7) Organise a food cooperative

A nice project, particularly for Green Offices and student groups, is to establish your own food cooperative. This has, for example, been done by Green Offices in Brussels, Utrecht and Exeter. The Green Office or student organisation directly sells food from local farmers. Farmers are often able to sell food cheaper because you are taking away the middle-man and you can offer fresh sustainable food to the university community.

(8) Establish a campus garden or urban farm on campus

Similar to running a food cooperative, you could also directly grow sustainable food at your university. This has been done by Green Offices Leuven and Greenwich. By growing food in a campus garden, you can directly control the sustainability standards and can then offer it for free or sell it to your university community. It is also a great project to involve volunteers and get people excited about sustainable food!

Urban garden by Green Office Groningen

(9) Find ways to reduce food waste

Finally, let’s look at sustainable food projects on reducing food waste. While reducing food waste can be challenging, food waste is a huge problem and there are things you can do. One great initiative exists in Maastricht, where edible food waste is distributed in the community by volunteers free of charge. Of course it would be even better to avoid food waste before it even occurs. At events, the most effective way of directly preventing food waste is to prepare food onsite. The problem is that this often includes high staff costs and expensive mobile kitchens. This can be mitigated through volunteers who are willing to prepare the food free of charge.

What should I not do?

It is generally not a good idea to force students and staff into certain behaviour. Things generally work out better, if they make choices voluntarily. Enforcing an all vegetarian menu in your university canteen may not be a good idea to promote sustainable food. On the other hand, if you make changes that are objectively just as good or better, people sometimes don’t even notice that they haven’t had meat on a given day or had a vegan version of a torte. Try to assess where you can make changes without students and staff minding too much.

Where can I find more information?

In several places in this blogpost, I have linked a part of the Green Office Sustainable Food University Toolkit. Feel free to use it to help with your projects. You might also want to check out some other helpful links like:

This text was written by Anselm T. Grahl, inspired by the Green Office Sustainable Food University Toolkit and various Green Office projects.