Dawn of a new green era for university catering

22nd July 2014

As English schools prepare to adopt the School Food Plan from September, created by Sustainable Restaurant Association director Henry Dimbleby, Higher Education is now stepping up to the plate by feeding the minds as well as the stomachs of its students with the launch of a pioneering sustainability accreditation for university catering.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) and The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) have worked together to develop the new University Catering Rating, which will not only help raise dining standards across UK universities, but also makes good business sense.

TUCO has also shown its committment to ensuring tertiary education focuses on its food, drink and hospitality by sponsoring the Food and Drink Green Gown Awards category which is new for 2014. This category recognises innovative campaigns across institutions that show creativity and consideration for how food and drink is procured and served and ultimately how behaviour change has been encouraged across staff, students and the broader community.  

According to research conducted by the Higher Education Authority and the NUS*, over 80% of students consistently believe that Sustainable Development should be actively incorporated and promoted by Universities.

Julie Barker, TUCO Chair, said: "Working in partnership with the SRA, TUCO has developed a ratings model that is sector specific to our market - a model which recognises the bespoke challenges faced by those operating in the Higher Education sector while retaining its unique integrity through the way it is scored.”

The rating follows the format that the SRA has used successfully over the last four years, dubbed the Michelin Stars of Sustainability by The Sunday Times, to assess the business-wide operation of its 4,000 restaurant Member sites. The rating is built around the three pillars of sustainability: Sourcing, Environment and Society and membership benefits include a dedicated, expert advice and support service to help them improve year on year.

The universities at Brighton and Plymouth played a crucial role in modelling and testing the new rating. Both received an exceptional score, Three Stars – the highest rating.

The University of Brighton’s Three Star rating reflected a number of notable initiatives, including its Marine Stewardship Council chain of custody certification, which ensures all the seafood it serves is from sustainable sources, it’s commitment to selling Fairtrade products at catering sites across campus the cookery classes and its use of renewable energy.

Julie Barker, in her capacity as Director of Accommodation and Hospitality at the University of Brighton, said: "I am, of course, delighted by the exceptional score achieved by University of Brighton, which is the first University to have been awarded this accreditation.

“The Report was welcomed by the Brighton team - which now feels it has a benchmark to strive to beat.  Whilst we were very happy with the outcome, we also recognise that we can make improvement – the process has challenged us to find the areas we can do better in. 

"I would urge that other universities and TUCO members also give real consideration to take advantage of this accreditation that is highly relevant and beneficial

The SRA was particularly struck by Plymouth University’s commitment to source from local producers exemplified by the 5,000 portions of locally caught fish served annually and the switch to Freedom Food charcuterie from Bristol. Equally impressive are its efforts to reduce its environmental footprint, evident in the compostable disposables and the work it’s doing with local schools. By transforming the carbohydrate heavy, standard canteen menu at one of its cafes, to one based on a range of healthy options made from locally sourced ingredients, Plymouth has increased turnover by 230%.

Ian Gribben, Commercial Services Director at Plymouth University, said: “It’s easy for us to sometimes forget we are doing something because it is right, tastes better or has value. We think this will help our awareness campaigns and prompt us to be more pro-active in our marketing. We feel the balance between the moral, ethical, and financial values works very well in helping target and support local businesses, British producers and local foods.”

Mark Linehan, Managing Director of the SRA, said: “Whilst pupils are catered for by the School Food Plan, the University Catering Rating provides similar focus on the next age group up, students, with the opportunity to eat locally produced food that isn’t costing the earth. We are indebted to TUCO, as well as the University of Brighton and Plymouth University for taking the initiative and helping to make sustainable university catering a reality.

To join the SRA or for more information about the University Catering Rating, contact hello@thesra.org or 020 7479 4224.

Local vegetables used at Plymouth University with food miles 'price tags' Darren Procter, Head Chef, who led the initiative at Plymouth University Food and Drink Green Gown Awards sponsor