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Two UK universities embrace Menus of Change

12th Dec 2022 - 04:00
Two UK universities have embraced the Menus of Change sustainability principles and joined a global higher education initiative to pool their research, education, and innovation in support of healthy and sustainable food choices.

Menus of Change (MoC) is a set of principles that aim to help caterers in any setting to deliver healthy, tasty and sustainable meals for their customers.

It began ten years ago when leaders at the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health posed three questions about the future of the culinary profession and the foodservice industry:

  • What if our most delicious foods—just coincidentally—were, or could be, also healthy and environmentally sustainable?
  • What if the most talented chefs, scientists, and business leaders, along with today’s culinary students, were collectively engaged in driving towards business-friendly solutions to our public health crisis and our most pressing environmental problems like climate change and water scarcity?
  • And what if we could create new approaches to collaboration between nutrition and medical experts, chefs, and environmental scientists to help the business community develop new models of innovation—and long-term business strategies around opportunities for the future of food and foodservice?

The core of Menus of Change is the ‘Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus’, which any and every catering organisation and outlet is encouraged to take up and use.

Beyond that, though, lies the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC), which has been created to answer the third of the three questions about new approaches to collaboration and is led by the Culinary Institute of America and Stanford University.

It includes 44 universities on its roster, 42 in the US plus The University of Reading and, just recently, the University of Bristol. The two British institutions talk here about their motivation for joining the collaborative, what it involves and the benefits it brings.

This is far from being a universities-only movement; others who have embraced the MoC 24 principles include Compass Group in the US and Google, who have each signed up to it for staff catering.

The University of Bristol experience

At the heart of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative are the 24 MoC guiding principles, which are designed to encourage people and businesses to adopt healthier, more sustainable food choices, writes Bristol University’s head of catering, Caroline Wynn.

Joining the MCURC, a global network of colleges and universities which is accelerating research, education, and innovation in support of healthy and sustainable food choices for all, has enabled us to unify three evolving projects under one programme.

These are research into student attitudes towards food and eating habits; a plant-forward approach to menu development; and the creation of our Food Charter, which has lain a foundation for our food culture.

It was a huge challenge, but I knew we had the right culinary team in place to make it a success. At the start of our journey, we thought we were ahead of the curve, but we soon recognised we had many challenges to overcome; such as bringing the vision and ethos of MCURC to life for our culinary teams without alienating our customers.

The team gained experience in implementing the MoC Principles when we opened our new Marketplace campus restaurant in 2020, which is loved by students, staff and public alike. It combines the principles with High-Street know how to create a highly successful restaurant with a menu that is 83% plant-based, the food cooked from scratch using fresh local produce. It has exceeded all KPI’s and customer satisfaction scores, whilst also enhancing the student experience.

What came next   

We had to reimagine our menus in catered halls of residence and to be honest the students were suspicious about the reasons behind the changes, suspecting we were trying to cut costs through reducing meat and encouraging plant-based eating.

In reality, of course, we were developing the skills of our chef team, enhancing flavour and increasing the amount of fresh produce we used.

Even before we joined the MCURC, ‘Meat-Free Monday’ had been a menu feature for many years. Although the majority of our students were very supportive of this idea in principle, our ‘Happy or Not’ instant feedback system showed it took three days to recover from the bad feeling caused by what the students dubbed ‘no meat moan-days’.

We knew the students loved the food at the ‘Marketplace’ and never questioned its majority plant-based menu. The challenge was to find a way to do this in halls and have happy students and do it quickly.

How did research play a part in the changes?

Alongside the food development activities, we completed an interdisciplinary study linking the catering department with four faculties (Veterinary, Biology, Psychology and Policy) to estimate the environmental and health costs associated with the food served on campus.

The project identified the nutritional profile of our menus, by evaluating the food choices being made. Working alongside our academic colleagues has improved the perception of our catering and understanding of the challenges we face. It has led us to carbon map our catered hall’s menus, implement a traffic light style carbon system in our grab-and-go ranges and develop a low-carbon events option.

Analysing ‘Happy or Not’ data enabled us to see that one dish offered on a meat-free day was bucking the negative trend … a humble macaroni cheese.

Rob Smith, our senior head chef, had made it more plant-forward by adding butternut squash puree to the sauce and using crispy leeks as garnish, but at its heart it was just a simple, humble and incredibly popular dish.

This led us to the belief that a simple pasta bar concept would be a winner. We didn’t want just any pasta bar for the students, we wanted to knock their socks off with it.

So what were the changes?

Using the MoC principles, we started with a choice of three types of pasta and four sauces from traditional roasted plum tomato and basil, to the more adventurous charred cauliflower and lentil ragu. They were served with numerous sides and toppings such as home-made meatless balls, crispy fake bacon, and spinach and ricotta gnudi (dumplings).

Around the same time Dawn Craig, our Badock restaurant supervisor, reported students asking for a selection of fresh chillies, chilli sauces and sambals for ‘added flavour’.

Combining the two concepts led to the creation of ‘Pasta Bar’ and ‘Flavour Stations’ giving the X factor we were looking for.

Alex Sim, our development chef, told me, ‘it’s fulfilling and brings a fun and exciting dimension to buffet dining to help break the menu fatigue by giving the diner control’.

With these ideas in mind we got together as a team and drew up plans for ‘Flava Station’, a selection of fresh herbs, cheeses, Italian breads, pesto, chillies, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, citrus and more.

We were really excited to launch this new concept, anticipating a 5% increase in satisfaction. The results were an overwhelming success, though, taking the Happy or Not index for a meat-free day from 60% to 94%. We have since expanded this concept across the menu themes including ‘Burrito Bar with Nacho station’ and ‘Balti with Bombay Bhaji station’.

What has been the impact of being part of MCURC?

At the time vegetarian food made up 33% of our menu and vegan food was available by request only. Now, after much hard work and focus on the core principles of Menus of Change, meat and fish dishes represent only 28% of our menus.

We are proud of our food achievements and look forward to the collaborative approach, sharing research results, and gaining insights over the coming years.

Bristol’s participation in MCURC has been welcomed by Sophie Egan, the organisation’s co-director.

She says: “Bristol is our second UK-based university to join the collaborative, and we were blown away by the strength of their application. Not only are they fully bought in on the evidence-based, integrated principles that guide operational decision-making, sourcing, and menu design to optimise both human and environmental health, but they really embrace the potential of multi-disciplinary, collaborative research using the MCURC model of campus dining halls as living laboratories for behaviour change.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have them aboard, and we know that many high-impact, innovative programmes, studies, and strategies will come from it.

“Above all, we look forward to countless delicious, plant-forward meals ahead through our work together—transforming students’ perceptions about just how craveable and satisfying these healthy, sustainable ways of eating truly can be.”

How the University of Reading has made it work

At Reading the decision to follow Menus of Change principles was taken a few years ago and in 2020 the university was admitted to the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, the first European higher education institution to do so at the time.

Matt Tebbit, the head of residential catering and bars at Reading, says the university has seen a number of positive changes since the decision was taken to follow this particular approach to sustainability.

For instance, Reading has actually doubled the number of students taking catered accommodation this academic year, bucking a trend that has seen numbers fall at many others universities.

As another example he points to one campus outlet that was averaging about 200 meals-a-day pre-Covid but is now serving more than 600. Students on a £76, 21-meals-a-week Meal Plan can enjoy an all-you-can-eat experience here for just £3.65, while pay-as-you-go customers are charged £8.80.

The menu options include topped focaccia, Caesar salad – both a regular and a cashew nut vegan option – plus plant-based dishes such as grilled melon steak, which Matt claims actually tastes like real steak.

A plant-forward approach

He says: “The Menus of Change principles are concepts we already embraced - less processed food, a plant-forward approach, and less meat. For instance, we serve our beefburger blended with 20% mushrooms and we don’t have a problem being upfront and telling people.

“Our chicken pie has lots of veg, the only pork we use is higher welfare organic free range pork. We’ve got our own herd of cows so our beef is free range.”

In addition, the university has an MSC-audited chain of custody for all the fish it serves and the catering operation has achieved a three-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.

But is it more expensive?

Which all sounds impressive, but is there a cost implication to such dedication to sustainability? Matt says not.

“We scratch cook, so get off relatively lightly, the recent big food cost rises notwithstanding. We have adapted menus, looking to buy seasonal where we can. We don’t buy pre-made sauces, which helps keep costs down, so we can afford to pay for skilled staff to cook from scratch.

“Our meat is all higher welfare, but we use less of it, which fits into the plant-forward approach. The menus are not really based on the traditional meat and two-veg any more. Instead we are elevating ancient grains, and using lentils and millet. There are loads of amazing foods out there, so we’re diversifying at the same time.”

The Reading catering team now uses local flour producers, so is no longer buying off international food markets; because it has its own cattle on its own farm, prices have remained stable because there has been ‘no rise in the price of grass’.

“Take pork, for example. The pigs are raised just 20 miles away and we buy the whole animal and butcher it the way we want and use it all from nose to tail.”

He says the university practices scratch cooking ‘in the extreme’. “We serve between 600-700 pizzas a day and make our own pizza dough. That helps temper the price, with a base costing only about 3p-4p each. All our cookies are batch made and frozen. It’s teaching us to be more effective and efficient at what we do.”

The benefits from being part of MCURC

How does he see being part of the MCURC group help the university in terms of networking, sharing ideas and developing more sustainable catering operations?

He says that, guided by the Culinary Institute of America and Stanford University, it carries out research around sustainability, looks at problems arising from the adoption of the 24 principles, looks at specific issues such as menu labelling, carries out surveys to see what customers think, and publishes insight.

“We also do operational research where we price something and see what the impact is or try different descriptions of dishes on menus.

“For instance, Stanford has produced an Edgy Veggies toolkit that is based on using ‘edgy’, taste-focused language descriptions for healthy food because it has been shown that consumers do not respond to health claims for food, but they will respond to words relating to taste and provenance.

“With 60 universities around the world now involved, this is a powerful research group. At Reading our academics lead on this and we work with them and let their results guide us on things like sources of iodine, oily fish and dairy. The MCURC group enables this sort of co-led research and it’s quite a unique.”

He says that adopting the MoC 24 principles saw the catering operation re-introduce scratch cooking in a significant way. And although the university’s own farm existed back then, the meat was sold off to supermarkets, while now all the product is used on campus.

“The quality of food you offer is so important to us because we can change student eating habits for life. That’s why TUCO is now adopting Menus of Change.”

And the students at Reading seem to be responding positively to the changes Matt and his team are making.

“We are shifting the system towards one with no Coke, no crisps, and no junk food, but we’re still getting students. Instead we’ve introduced initiatives like a burrito concept, food is served on plates not in boxes and the menu changes every day.”

Looking to the future

Matt says that although the university catering has changed a lot in recent years, there are still plenty of ideas to improve the offer yet further.

“We make some speciality bread right now, but still buy in a lot and we’d like to bake all our own eventually. I’m also looking at the idea of developing our own brewery too.

“In the meantime we’re making investments into IT, looking to improve the student experience, and remove processes that don’t involve making food. Everyone on the catering team is student-facing, we have no offices, and we’re automating as much as possible to reduce the amount of admin and to provide more information for customers.

“Our outlets changing too, with more theatre and live cooking, which gives us more engagement with customers. We’re looking pay-on-entry and letting students visit the different cooking stations once inside.

“And we want to expand the cheffing team. It’s a competitive market, I know, but I believe we can provide them with an interesting job package - a secure place to work, freedom to cook, we even do some foraging now. And we’re offering on-site apprenticeships to get young chefs onto the workforce too.”

Among other changes, the university catering team now cooks even on Christmas Day.

“It started during Covid when a lot of our students couldn’t get home and we’ve kept it. We have a lot of overseas students staying over the holiday.”

And for Matt, the ultimate testament to the changes that have taken place at the university came recently from its main food supplier Brakes.

“They told me that when they looked at our buying pattern five years ago and today it looks like two different customers.”

Written by
Edward Waddell