Catering service: how and why to convert to organic (local)?

bio locale - EXPO2015 ristorazione mensaCatering service is an important incentive to convert to a more sustainable food and agriculture. Different aspects and challenges of the environmental economy are connected to this: the establishment of production chains, the link with the territory, the choice of the products (seasonality, proximity…).

Many of the participants to the Expo 2015 will highlight their initiatives over the subject. Moreover, the food offer of the pavilions and the organization (Expo 2015) will be under the spotlight: where will the products come from (from far away or from local places, products of the agro-food industry, fresh products)? Will they be biological products? How they will be packed? What will its nutritional value be? The challenge will be to be able to present the entire food variety of the 145 participant countries, ensuring at the same time the sustainability of the food supply given the central question of the Expo: “Is it possible to ensure to the whole humanity an adequate, quality and sustainable food?”

Today, the article of my friend Celine – who came with me to the interview to Fred de Topager - about the issue of catering service in France and the introduction of the biological food.

Thanks Celine!

Last Monday 12th of January, I have participated to a very interesting seminar, organized by the National Federation of Biological Agriculture of the French regions (FNAB), at the FIAP Jean Monnet of Paris over the theme “Introducing the biological and local products in the government catering service is possible”.
Here is what I could get from this seminar, through my inexperienced eyes and like a simple curious citizen.

What was this seminar about?

With the term “Government catering service”, we mean all the meal services of the government administration and the public institutions. For example the hospital, military and university meals.

In the framework of the Plan Ambition bio 2017, the French minister of Agriculture has prioritized to develop the use of biological products in the service meal OOH (outside home), and in particular in the government catering service, which objective is the obtain 20% of biological products from nowadays to 2017.

The objective of this seminar – which has gathered more than one hundred participants, among them managers of the governmental catering service, producers and federations of biological producers, private suppliers of the catering service, representatives from the ministers of ecology, agriculture, etc. – was to share their positive experiences, to exchange views on incentives and obstacles in order to find concrete and innovative solutions to reach this objective.

The challenges: healthy food and development of the territories.

produits bio locaux expo2015I think that the most interesting aspect is that the issue goes well beyond the simple introduction of biological products in the students’ and employers’ meals. Indeed, it is necessary to make the healthy and quality food accessible to a great number of people. Nevertheless, it’s necessary also to give a real meaning to the public action. The challenge for the State is to be a good example.

There is also a greater challenge, that is the development of a ptoject of the territory, a local development project, able to integrate all the aspects of the sustainable development. Indeed, we don’t speak only of biological, but local-biological. The development of local biological products, in fact, represents an extraordinary tool in order to change people’s mentality (food habits, consumers’ and producers’ practices…), in order to create links (among eaters, farmers, catering services…), in order to create job (local agricultural jobs), in order to give again a real value to works which have disappeared, in order to protect and give a value to the territory’s resources (water, landscapes…), in order to re-discover the real taste of food.

If you want to know more about this, give a look at the portail documentaire de la FNAB, which lists 15 reasons that show how biological agriculture can be a tool for the sustainable development of the territory.

Obstacles / opportunities: it depends of point of view

The various experiences presented and the debates we had highlighted one numbers of elements which mark out an initiative of introduction of organic food in collective catering . Here a small selection of the ideas which most marked me:

Costs and prices:

As usual, money is the sinews of war.

argentAnd when we speak about the introduction of organic food in institutional catering, it is difficult not to think of an additional cost and thus of the increase in prices for the consumers. Some products as meat are often difficult to introduce without increasing prices. Yet, price increase is difficult to accept and to make accept, all the more in a “social” restoration where the prices cannot be discriminating. All the stake thus, is to reduce as musch as possible this additional cost and try not to penalize consumers.

For that purpose, numerous initiatives show that there are parades and that everything lies in a new management and and a change of mentalities. We can replace for example meats by other products very rich in vegetable proteins (peas, lenses, beans, cereal), by accompanying this initiative in raising awareness so that the consumers see their interest to eat less often some meat but of better quality.

Besides, the choice of the pieces of meat influences significantly the prices. Or rather the non-choice: for instance a good boeuf Bourguignon can require less noble pieces, but which will come from an healthy animal, rather than to choose always what is considered as the best pieces, the rump steak, the rib steak, etc. which are more expensive. In brief, they are only examples, but there is a great deal of things to be revised and who can really lead to introduce organic and local, good quality products, without blowing up the prices.

Training and professionalization, the key-role of cooking: relearn to cook fresh products, to innovate and to plan

TeamworkThe training and the professionalization of stakeholders is a key element which went out very often from the debate. In particular as regards the training of kitchen crews. Because cooking organic and local food rarely means only change the origin of ingredients and keeping the same recipe. Organic products cook differently, the times and the modes of cooking in particular are to be adjusted. And the cooks have to learn to cook fresh products, raw products, what they made less and less. It is thus necessary to adapt technical means (development of a légumerie for example, purchase of a low-temperature oven, etc.), to innovate and to rethink the menus. It is also necessary to plan differently, to think of the menus over a bigger period, to anticipate. On one hand so that the producers can plan their production. And on the other hand, to balance the differences of costs by smoothing them on several menus. A support is thus essential to train the staff in these changes. But this dynamics of change comes along very often with a remotivation of the staff, because it revalues their job, give them more sense, recreate links around a common project, and restore some energy by fostering innovation.

Structuration, organization, concertation:

The question of suppliers is crucial in the approach of introducing local organic food in institutional catering. It can be a brake for the restaurants which handle very big volumes. And one other side, a small restaurant can have fewer possibilities of playing on the volumes of purchases to optimize its costs. It is thus a question of identifying well the offer available on its territory, what can be made with the support of various specialized structures (such as the GRAB (regional Groupings of organic farming), producers’ platforms, etc.).

The introduction of organic and local products in institutional catering also collides with the complexity of the rules of public markets, which favor more the pricong criteria than the sustainable development criteria as the seasonality, the short circuits. Even if solutions exist, they are not still known.

In front of these various stakes, it seems obvious that it is essential that all the involved actors work in partnership (administrators of restaurants, producers, suppliers, structures of accompaniment, etc.), to adopt an approach of dialogue, to structure and develop the networks, put in adequacy the supply and demand, understand the constraints of each and get organized at best to answer it. Rather than to continue in the current unsustainable commercial approach.

produits bio locaux débats expo 2015Conscienciouness-raising and communication

As in all multi stakeholders change project, communication and conscienciouness raising are key. Very often, farm visit, meeting with local producers, tasting are good ways to raise the awaireness the staff and customers, put again the “human” in relations.

Many participants noticed that with organic, you are not allowed to be wrong. If one day, some organic food is not good, not beautiful, or in supply disruption, everything could stop. It is so very important to work on the taste, the appearance in order to change progressivly the consumers habits.

Motivation, times and support: key of success

More generally, it is clear that this kind of initiative cannot be done in one day, and that you need both motivation and an awareness of some key stakeholders (members of the associacation, chief of the restaurant, staff, customers…) in order to make changes possible, and also a support in the long run, in order to garantee the sustainability of the changes.
In brief, as you may have understood, I found this subject exciting and the debates were very interesting! Even if constraints are many, I could feel that motivation and involvement of each of the stakeholder at his level can really change things, and that gives hope!


Ps: thanks to Maria Silvia for her help to translate this article to italian!

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