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Sustainable Food and Dining in the Workplace

A sustainable business plan involves evaluating lunchroom or cafeteria practices and policies as well as how food is sourced and served. Green company kitchens, lunchrooms and cafeterias should include sustainable food choices, eco-friendly food packaging and serving containers, proper waste management, employee training on sustainability and green purchasing policies.

Sustainable Food Choices

Creating a sustainable food culture in the workplace starts with considering what employees are actually eating. Many studies on the sustainability of food report that cutting back or eliminating animal products is a proven way to lower environmental impact. Compared to vegetable production, livestock farming and the manufacturing of animal products requires more water, land, and energy. At the global scale, this contributes to a higher carbon footprint, resource scarcity and environmental and economic imbalances between affluent nations purchasing meat products and the vulnerable regions where livestock and livestock feed are heavily produced.

Further, meat and dairy intensive diets can lead to several different health problems such as cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Combined with the negative environmental impacts of unsustainable “factory farming”, the health risks involved decline public health and wellbeing and put a strain on medical services and resources. Unfortunately, meat and dairy industries continue to raise and process livestock and animal products in a way that focuses on the bottom line and not on the health of people, communities, and the planet.

Buying Sustainable Food Locally 

While providing staff with plant-based meals is the ideal choice, it should be understood that buying produce and plant-based foods may still be tied to a high carbon footprint, poor production practices and regional disparities. To bypass out-of-season shortages, certain fruits and vegetables such as blueberries and asparagus are often imported by air to the U.S. and these travel miles add up to huge amounts of carbon emissions.

Further, the practices and policies of food industry corporations are not always transparent to the common consumer so buying locally is a far more trustworthy approach to purchasing ethical, sustainable food choices for your business. By purchasing food from local businesses and local farms, you are supporting and investing in your community. Buying locally also gives you the ability to connect directly with suppliers and ensure that they are following food production practices that preserve the environment rather than harm it. Reducing “food miles”, the distance that food purchases travel from provider to your business, also lowers emissions and your overall carbon footprint.

Eco-friendly Packaging and Serving Container Choices

Packaging materials, especially pertaining to food, can be one of the most difficult challenges a company faces on their journey towards sustainability. For a long time, single-use packaging has been the most convenient and cost effective way to preserve and serve foods. However, we now know that their short-term convenience produces long-term problems for our communities and our planet. While plastic containers are durable and cheap to produce, they are derived from the world’s finite petroleum supply and do not break down into nature-friendly components. Packaging made from 100% recyclable, compostable, and/or post-consumer recycled content are greener alternatives. However, even if they are considered more sustainable than plastic, single-use, disposable items of any kind still contribute to resource and energy use and to the world’s waste problem.

The best way to tackle packaging problems is to limit your packaging purchases and implement reuse policies. For example, a green practice gaining popularity in the workplace is installing a water purification device to filter tap water and encouraging staff to bring their reusable water bottles. This eliminates both the waste and costs from purchasing single-use water bottles. Refilling a central, large dispensing cooler to supply water to everyone for an entire shift is another option. To green your lunchroom, kitchen, or cafeteria, invest in durable, reusable containers and cutlery. This also reduces single-use waste and rids staff of the hassle of bringing items from home.

Food Waste Management in the Workplace

After you consider which eco-friendly foods and packaging you will serve, you should have a waste management plan for your company kitchen or cafeteria. Implementing composting in the workplace is an ambitious and empowering initiative for food waste management. When designing your compost plan, compost bins should be placed conveniently in workplace eating areas so leftover food scraps can be collected and then taken to the nearest composting facility. If there is no commercial composting facility near your business, you may look into taking the leftovers to a local community garden or a smaller composting site. Excess food can be sent home with employees or donated to a local food pantry rather than being thrown out.

If you must use single-use food packaging, then collect these items in designated recycling receptacles. Keep in mind that each composting and recycling facility will differ on which items they can process. Research online or call your local facilities to confirm which items they accept before developing your company’s food waste management plan. It is also vital that recycling is done properly to insure your efforts are not done in vain. If items are sorted into the wrong containers or they are contaminated with too much food residue on them, they may be thrown away or create processing problems.

Sustainability Training and Employee Engagement

  • Hold an initial training and information session to teach employees the importance of a green lunchroom culture.
  • Survey employees on their ideas and suggestions for best green lunchroom flow.
  • Create a task force to monitor success, enforce initiatives and keep employees interested.
  • Place appropriate signage throughout the lunchroom to guide employees on best, eco-friendly practices.
  • Check in with employees regularly to gain feedback on your new lunchroom policies and procedures and make revisions where needed.
  • As a perk, provide company branded materials (i.e. reusable water bottles) to help staff transition to these new practices. Note: When buying company merch, make sure you are sourcing from a business also following sustainable practices such as Evergreen Promotions.

Green Purchasing Policy

Green purchasing, green procurement or environmentally preferred purchasing is gaining traction across all sectors of the business world. A green purchasing policy, generally speaking, is a policy that guides businesses or organizations to buy products with low or no environmental impact when compared to other products on the market. A green purchasing policy lessens a company’s overall environmental impact but it also yields cost savings over time through the product’s better energy efficiency or money-back rebate programs. These policies can cover all green purchases within a company or it can be designated for certain portions of the company’s expenses. A green purchasing policy aimed at the company kitchen, cafeteria or catered event helps businesses select the most sustainable options for food, packaging, and vendors. Establishing such policies also reduces purchasing confusion, saves time and money, and creates peace of mind that the best, most sustainable decisions are made.

Executive Summary

Besides being necessary for staff wellbeing and workplace productivity, food is deeply linked to the environmental and social conditions of our world.  Businesses that serve food or provide an eating area must embrace the opportunity to create more sustainable food practices and policies. By introducing a few new green habits into the workplace such as composting or using reusable cutlery, your business can expand its do-good attitude and make a measurable difference in your community and the surrounding environment.

About the Author

Natalie Sheffey Soto

GBB Green Ambassador

Natalie Sheffey Soto is a content writer for the Green Business Bureau. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, she developed a love for the natural environment and has committed herself to a career working to protect it. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Global Sustainability with a concentration in Sustainable Business at the University of South Florida. Along with her outdoor enthusiasm, Natalie loves to play sports and foster animals for local rescues.

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