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More veg, less cost?

16th May 2023 - 04:00
Siobhan O’Neill investigates whether catering teams can really cut their food bill costs by switching to more plant-based meals on their menus.

At the Public Sector Catering ‘Most Influential’ round table debate in February, one of the main topics of discussion was how the cost-of-living crisis was becoming increasingly challenging for caterers.

Members described the pressures that higher food prices and wage rises were having on their service.

Sue Cawthray, chair of the National Association of Care Caterers (NACC), explained how local authorities were increasing funding per resident by just 4% compared with a staff wage increase of 9% and food prices going up by 19%.

Brad Pearce, chair of LACA, the organisation for school meal providers, said he was concerned about how school budgets would be affected once Government support for fuel costs ended in April.

He described meal subsidies rising by just 5p, saying: “The average selling price will be £2.65. That’s gone up 18% since the pandemic but if we recover our costs it needs to be much closer to £3. I get £2.47 for food and labour for a school food standard compliant meal every day. We can’t keep doing it.”

The sector’s concerns reached the House of Commons on April 19th when Kim Johnson, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, asked the House what assessments had been done regarding food price inflation affecting the delivery of school meals. He called the funding rise of just 11p in 13 years ‘appalling’.

Pearce told the Alliance that his caterers were having to look closely at ingredients and suppliers to try to reduce costs whilst maintaining an attractive meal on the plate.

But could a switch to more plant-based eating help caterers cope better with food price rises?

A quick check of the prices at one wholesaler reveals that lentils and jackfruit are currently retailing at around half the price per kilo of minced beef, suggesting that a more plant-based menu could help caterers ease some of their costs.

In November 2022 a study by ‘Myvegan’ reported in Grocery Gazette suggested that a fifth of Brits had already switched to a more plant-based diet to cut the cost of their shopping bill. The research revealed that the average household spent £222 a month on food, compared with around £203 for pescatarians and vegans.

Christine Cornall is head of catering operations with the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which was named the ‘greenest school menu’, for serving up more than 1m plant-based meals to children last year.

She says she thinks that reducing meat does help with costs. Waltham Forest’s summer menu has two days each week when only plant-based meals are available, as well as daily vegetarian options.

She adds, though, that it helps that meals are cooked from scratch – including baking their own bread – because processed vegetarian products can be ‘just as pricey’ as their meat-based counterparts.

Recognising that some caterers might struggle with a switch to plant-based menus when faced with nutritional standards, Cornall says that Waltham Forest had adopted the ‘less but better meat’ approach.

“With meat dishes we supplement those with whole foods and vegetables to reduce the quantity,” she says. “We buy better meat. But we do supplement those dishes with vegetables and pulses. Often we blend them so that the children - particularly the younger ones – don’t realise.”

Cornall points to simple plant-based swaps that can help bring prices down but are still attractive to the children. For example, with cheese prices rocketing, she now serves a plant-based pizza on one of the meat-free days because the children still enjoy pizza with vegan cheese.

She adds that upfront work was required to develop a more plant-based menu and points to the work of her development chef, who trials flavourful recipes and then helps train school cooks to recreate them.

Matthew White, director of campus commerce and head of function at the University of Reading, is also chair of the Public Sector Catering Alliance and agrees that cooking from scratch can help lower costs.

Working with Menus of Change at Reading, he says: “We took the decision to revert entirely to scratch cooking across our dining venues and we have seen food provision costs drop significantly.

“Yes there has been an increase in labour costs, but the provisions costs far outweigh those and we have not suffered as some of our sector colleagues have around product shortages and availability.

“There are so many other benefits such as allergens control and the team being really passionate about what they are serving. Our sales have grown, as well as our customer satisfaction. Utilising plants first has seen us reduce meat, but we now use better quality meat and fish on our menus.

“We craft dishes to increase flavour profile, such as our Reading Burger where we add mushrooms to the mix which increases the umami qualities and the flavour while reducing the meat quantity required. This reduces cost and delivers a better taste.”

White also suggests caterers work with suppliers to focus on seasonality to reduce costs. “Look at the season, work with your butcher and greengrocer and use what is available as nature intended,” he says.

Simon Billing, executive director of Eating Better, agrees that developing talented chefs is important.

“Green lentils is a wonderful crop in the UK, super sustainable, a really great thing for us to be growing now and into the future with climate change. They’re a great replacement for minced beef if you can get all the spices and the flavouring in there, but we need to cook quite differently, so that’s why the chef and the culinary side is absolutely critical because it’s about those spices and flavouring and not just boiling up green lentils,” he says.

Eating Better launched the ‘Anything is pulse-able’ campaign in January in response to the cost-of-living crisis, highlighting the use of beans and pulses as a very affordable protein source.

With a long shelf-life, pulses reduce the cost of storage as they don’t need refrigeration and they’re unlikely to go off.

Written by
Edward Waddell