A Lot of Organic Potential is Wasted in Large Kitchens

German canteens and school canteens still have some catching up to do when it comes to organic food. This is to change. But consistent conversion means more than just exchanging products. A look at neighbouring European countries, which are already further ahead in the field of organic out-of-home catering, can be helpful.

20 percent organic farming by 2030 is one of the goals of the German sustainability strategy. That would be a doubling of the current figure of just over 10 percent. By promoting organic food in canteen kitchens of day-care centres, schools and public administration, the German government wants to increase the sales market for organic farmers. So far, however, organic products only have a share of 1.3 percent in the out-of-home catering sector (AHV). This was shown by a small market study carried out as part of the Federal Organic Farming Programme. The importance of out-of-home catering had been steadily increasing before the Corona crisis. “40 percent of food is consumed in communal catering”, explains Josef Wetzstein, chairman of the Bioland cultivation association in Bavaria.

Canteens play a key role in the agricultural turnaround

Public institutions not only have a direct influence on the demand for organic products in terms of quantity, they also act as role models and introduce many consumers to the subject of organic products in the first place. “Large kitchens play a key role in the agricultural turnaround,” says Kristin Mayr. She heads the “Organic Eating” unit at the Bund Naturschutz in Bayern and advises restaurateurs on the conversion to organic. 30,000 employees in public authorities and ministries, plus schools, daycare centers and retirement homes – that adds up to around 1.8 million meals a day in Bavaria’s public institutions alone, Mayr reckons: “a lot of wasted potential”.

At the same time, suppliers who want to put more organic products on the plate no longer have to do pioneering work. In all areas of out-of-home catering, successful concepts show how it can be done. Back in 1998, the insurance company HDI in Cologne was the first German company to convert its canteen completely to organic food.

Many employers subsidize the organic offer

Many municipal canteens, refectories or school and kita kitchens would also like to use more organic products – but the decision to do so often fails because of concerns that it is too expensive. In fact, although many consumers are in favour of organic in surveys, the decision is made when it comes to the food they eat. The rule here is: the more expensive the food, the lower the acceptance. Companies that have converted their company canteen to organic generally subsidize the food. Like HDI in Cologne, Hipp in Pfaffenhofen also subsidizes the company’s own organic canteen in order to keep the selling price per plate below the six-euro mark. The majority of canteen kitchens, especially in the public sector, is attempting a balancing act of contradictory goals: saving money and cooking healthily.

20 percent organic is feasible at no cost

It is very important to allow sufficient time when converting to organic in the canteen kitchen, says Kristin Mayr from the German Nature Conservation Association. The gradual conversion of individual components such as pasta, vegetables or fruit, for which the price difference to conventional goods is small, has proven successful.

“There are basic products such as potatoes where you can always finance this in return,” says Thomas Voss, commercial director of the LWL clinics in Münster. In 2004, his canteen started to introduce organic products, and today the proportion is 22 percent. Voss says that such an organic proportion can be achieved with an unchanged budget through clever shopping and a well-considered mixed calculation. This is why many local authorities are now also formulating an organic share of 20 percent in their invitations to tender for the catering contract. However, a consistent organic concept with significantly higher percentages cannot be achieved in a cost-neutral way by replacing products alone. The greatest challenge is the conversion of meat and sausage products.

Return to good craftsmanship

Therefore, canteen kitchens usually develop an overall concept by offering more vegetarian dishes or, instead of lump meat, more goulash, bolognese and meat skewers. In the FO clinics, the proportion of meat per portion fell gradually from 180 to 120 grams. Aligning the menu according to seasonal and regional offers and paying attention to consistent waste avoidance also keeps the additional costs low. Some canteens are following the approach of serving smaller portions – with the option of a free top-up.

It is obvious that it is easier for kitchens in particular to switch to organic, where people still cook for themselves. To save on personnel costs, however, many canteens purchase ready-cooked food from caterers and only warm it up. Investments in changed processes are therefore essential when converting to organic in canteen kitchens. And these are primarily investments in people – and not primarily in products. This includes the qualification of kitchen staff in the selection of ingredients, the development of new recipes and, quite simply, a return to good cooking.

No organic without a certificate

In addition to the fear of exploding costs, some companies are also reluctant to go for organic certification: some people think the procedure is too complicated, others are not even aware of their certification obligation. But the regulation is clear: Whoever wants to use and promote organic products in the AHV is subject to inspection under the Organic Farming Act. Within the framework of the Federal Programme for Organic Farming and Other Forms of Sustainable Agriculture (BÖLN), a guideline has been drawn up to help companies on their way to organic certification.

However, the Federal Government continues to rely on voluntary action on the issue of organic food in large-scale catering establishments. In addition to nationwide projects such as the “Bio bitte” initiative and the “Bio-kann-jeder” campaign with information events and workshops, a new guideline on support and advice for companies in out-of-home catering (RiBe) has been announced for 2020 within the framework of the BÖLN.

Environmental associations demand fixed organic quotas

In fact, many independent restaurateurs and canteen operators become active on their own initiative and discover organic as a marketing or employee retention tool. But: In public institutions, fixed organic quotas could speed up the process. Following the presentation of the Federal Government’s latest nutrition report at the end of May, the WWF therefore complained about deficits in the management of communal catering: “There is an urgent need for concrete target and conversion targets and the anchoring of minimum criteria in the allocation procedures from kindergarten to school to retirement homes. The Federation of Organic Food Industry also criticizes the lack of bundling at federal level. On the part of the Federal Ministry there is “a small number of countless individual initiatives”, said Volker Krause, Director for Food Production at BÖLW.

Denmark, France, Austria as role models

In fact, examples from other European countries show that political guidelines can put more organic food on the plates of canteens and refectories – and this is not only the case in Denmark, a model country for organic food, where public kitchens should use at least 60 percent organic food.

In French mass catering, too, sales of organic products have for years been growing faster than the organic market as a whole – and have received a further strong boost from organic programmes (most recently Ambition Bio 2022). In the meantime, 65 percent of canteen kitchens in the public sector offer organic products. Organic products are most widespread in the educational sector with 86 percent. The example of Austria also shows how politics can successfully set impulses in the field of communal catering. On average, public institutions in Austria already use at least 30 percent organic products.