3 challenges to sustainable dining and how operators are working to overcome such challenges

A group of operators took to the stage at the 2024 MenuDirections event to discuss challenges to being sustainable in the on-site foodservice industry
Reyna Estrada leads panel at Menu Directions
During the session, operators identified cost, messaging and educating diners as three barriers to sustainability in the on-site dining industry. | Photo: Tara Fitzpatrick.

Sustainability for all segments in the on-site foodservice industry was a big focus on the first day of the 2024 MenuDirections conference.

When it comes to sustainability, there is so much opportunity for growth and so much to be learned. That's a sentiment that was echoed in a session at this years MenuDirections event, titled Sustainability—Solutions Overcoming the Barriers. During the session, a group of onsite operators representing various segments of the on-site dining industry took to the stage to discuss the current challenges to creating a more sustainable food system and the ways in which they are working to overcome said challenges.

Here's a look at three of those challenges and a discussion on the work the operators are doing in the space to address them.

1. Balancing profitability and sustainability

A major concern for many stakeholders when introducing a new initiative is, of course, cost. And cost can be a big barrier to sustainability.

“We're trying to balance, you know, the profitability margin, with the sustainability and doing the right thing for our society and our community,” said Kris Klinger, vice president of Auxiliary Services at Boston University.

 Often, when launching a sustainability initiative, there is some sort of buy-in cost or adjustment to the current way of doing business. For instance, launching a reusable container program requires the initial cost of the reusable containers. However, there is an opportunity for sustainability to eventually become cost-effective. In the reusable containers example, the operation may have to fork over the money for the initial purchase, but over time, they are eliminating the cost of single use containers and eventually they may even see cost savings as a result.

One opportunity of growth for the industry, said Klinger, is getting to the point where sustainable options are the most cost effective.

“I personally believe that sustainable products should be the least expensive products because of the fact that they're sustainable, right, and they're requiring the least amount of resources if they're truly sustainable,” he said. “And so that's a place that I really see as needing to get some traction.”

For Kaitlyn Welzen, dining sustainability manager at Duke University, cost is often on her mind from the very beginning when launching a new initiative. And Welzen said there is a lot of opportunity for cost savings in the sustainable dining space.

Duke University is partially self-operated and partially operated by small independent restaurants and the dining program has 33 dining locations, which means Welzen works with a variety of different operators.

“Profitability is something on each of their minds,” said Welzen. “A lot of times operators buy the same color plastic bowl because they've been buying it for the past five years. Sometimes commercial options can be cheaper, as long as you're willing to let me take you from a clear plastic bowl to a paper bowl.”

2. Communicating the sustainability message

Communication is vital to getting various stakeholders on board with new initiatives. Another challenge discussed during the breakout session was communicating that sustainability message. In order to get diners or employees on board with changes, it is important to communicate the “why” behind that effort.

One valuable resource in communicating these messages, said the panelists, is data. Using data allows operators to communicate the impact of their work, showcasing the reason behind their sustainability initiatives.

One way some operators are working through that challenge is by being selective about vendors, specifically when they are not able to provide the data needed to effectively communicate their message.

“We are actually changing vendors. So, when a vendor can't provide the data that we need, we'll work with them as much as we can, but if it continues, we look for people that can give us the information,” said Erica Block, senior director of food and nutrition services at RUSH Medical Center in Chicago.

And it can be valuable, said Block, to rely on your partners.

 “There are a lot of companies out there that will support coming in and doing chef demos. There's one that we've worked with, Universal Meals, that came out and did plant forward recipes,” she said.

And in the K-12 segment, there is the unique challenge of communicating messages to both parents and diners, as in that space, parents rather than diners themselves, often have a big influence. For Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services at Minneapolis Public Schools, having various avenues of communication has been helpful in getting the message across. His team will engage with parents and diners through social media, PTA and PTO meetings.

3. Educating diners

Many sustainability efforts only work if there’s buy-in from diners. For instance, going back to the reusable container example, an operation can offer reusable to-go containers, but that initiative only works if diners are actually using them and returning them. One issue of such a program is that oftentimes, operators find the reusable containers in the garbage, and they end up in the landfill anyway.

One way to address this problem is by partnering with different groups that focus on spreading knowledge on sustainability.

“The University Collaborative that a few of us are part of, they have a lot of that information out there. And they've been around for a dozen or so years now. And you know, the members tap into that information and provide that information to the students in particular because, most importantly, that group supports the students,” said Klinger.

And it can be valuable to invest in marketing efforts to spread awareness about the impact of sustainability efforts.

One way Klinger has been working on this effort at Boston University is by holding cooking classes that focus on healthy sustainable eating. This can help diners to understand the “why” behind the university’s sustainability efforts, but also provides them with the tools to continue eating sustainably once they graduate as well.

“It is also, you know, teaching young people how to cook and make a case and make vegetables taste as good as junk food, right?” said Klinger.



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