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The features of a sustainable food management system

Sustainable food management is a systematic approach that concentrates on reducing wasted food, supporting local communities and employees, and mitigating the environmental impact of operations over the complete life cycle of food items. This lifecycle starts with the sourcing of natural resources via agriculture, to the distribution of ingredients to manufacture food items, and then the transportation of these food items across the globe for their consumption and disposal.

A sustainable food management system will guarantee:

  1. Economic and social inclusion,
  2. The conservation of natural resources,
  3. Resilience against future market shocks,
  4. Efficient production of food to meet global needs while minimizing the loss of goods and resources,
  5. Nutritious and healthy produce, providing and promoting the consumption of safe foods for a healthy diet.

In this Green Business Bureau article, we wanted to help you support a sustainable food supply model on a global level, starting at a smaller scale with your organization’s cafeteria. And so we present you with our 26-tip checklist guide to sustainable food management for the office cafeteria.

Before you jump into this guide, your must understand the key sustainability challenges our global food supply chain faces. Understanding these problems will give context for big-picture thinking, and to appreciate how your small-scale business cafeteria can support sustainability in a global system.

Sustainability challenges and factors to consider with food management

The global food system is complex, requiring inputs from a diverse set of industries, such as agriculture, transportation logistics, plus marketing, and retail.

Understanding this complexity is essential for the development of an effective and sustainable food management strategy.

It’s due to this complexity that food systems have far-reaching impacts on our planet. Listed below are the five main ways foods supply chains negatively harm our environment.

Our food supply chain uses an excessive amount of land leading to biodiversity loss

Agricultural land takes up 38% of the Earth’s land surface and our growing population is straining this limited resource. Agriculture causes extensive land-use change, destroying natural habitats and biomass, which is the leading cause of extinction. Additionally, conventional farming practices reduce the levels of carbon retained in the soil – an important medium for carbon sequestration.

Our food supply chain demands an extravagant amount of energy

Energy and food are intrinsically linked together. Fossil fuels are demanded throughout the entire food supply chain and consume 30% of the world’s available energy. Food production and its associated energy use is broken down into four categories: Agricultural, transportation, processing, and handling. The agricultural portion uses 20.80% of energy, while transportation uses 13.9%, processing uses 15.8%, and handling of food uses a whopping 49.5%. Considering we’re currently in an energy crisis, these figures are concerning.

Our food supply chain has a high carbon footprint contributing to climate change

Food systems produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 14.5% of global GHG emissions from human activities, the single largest category. Reports reveal that food systems contribute more than a third of the GHG emissions that contribute to climate change, making the reduction in released GHGs essential for any sustainable food management system.

Our food supply chain wastes food and resources

In the U.S., one-third of the food produced for human consumption is neglected, squandering the resources used to make it. Food loss refers to unused products from the agricultural sector, such as unharvested crops. This can occur in all production, manufacturing, consumption, and post-consumption phases. Food waste is a component of food loss and happens when an edible item goes unconsumed. It is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the U.S. Hence domestic food waste is a significant cause for concern.

Our food supply chain does not educate the consumer on the importance of healthy living and sustainably sourced ingredients

Most people do not know or care where their food comes from, how it is grown and processed, and the related environmental, social, and economic impacts. However, providing resources to develop the knowledge and skills required to live a healthy, sustainable lifestyle is vital. An emphasis on food sustainability can help people make better food choices that are nutritious, fresh, and local. For instance, studies show a relationship between young people’s food interest and their consistency in following healthy dietary patterns.

Actions and tips for sustainable food management

Thinking about these global challenges, the Green Business Bureau has got together a list of tips that will help your office cafeteria support a sustainable food model by mitigating the environmental issues associated with our conventional food system.

We’ve grouped these tips into the following categories: Operations, planning and preparation, purchasing, storage, and waste.

Reducing the environmental impact of food-related operations

  • Tip #1 – Offer vegetarian or vegan options: Vegetarian and vegan diets are said to be healthier than meat-based diets. Plus vegetarian and vegan diets need 26.9% less energy for food production, produce 49.6% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and have a 41.5% smaller environmental footprint compared to diets that include meat. It’s easy to see how this tip reduces the carbon footprint and demand for available land for a given food management system.
  • Tip #2 – Conduct a food waste audit: Keeping a list of your food waste is the best way to truly know what and how much food is being wasted and what the potential cost savings are. Check out this guide by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which details how to best keep track of waste.
  • Tip #3 – Provide reusable dishware: Eliminate paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils for employees who are dining in. Provide washable, reusable service ware instead. If you offer take-out, ask your employees if they need napkins, utensils, or condiments rather than assume that they do.
  • Tip #4 – Upgrade to EnergyStar or other certified equipment and appliances: EnergyStar products help to save energy and money without sacrificing performance. Equipment includes cooking items (fryers, ovens, griddles), walk-in coolers and freezers, and other appliances.
  • Tip #5 – Recycle paper supplies and purchase recycled paper materials: Recycling paper supplies will keep materials out of landfills, supporting a circular economy. Plus you’ll want to be purchasing paper items that have already been recycled. Ask your vendor for products that contain at least 30% recycled content. The EPA has a guide for buying recycled paper products.
  • Tip #6 – Utilize a paperless menu: If your company has a rotating menu, use a chalkboard or electronic system to distribute the daily/weekly/monthly changes to reduce the amount of paper printed and used.
  • Tip #7 – Use green-certified cleaning products in areas not used for food preparation: Cleaning products may contain toxic chemicals that negatively impact human health and air quality. Aim to purchase green cleaners. That is, look or certification labels like EcoLogo, or Safer Choice. Additionally, the Oregon Government has provided a list of green cleaning products for you to choose from.
  • Tip #8 – Use occupancy sensors for lighting in storage, offices, restrooms, and other common rooms: Occupancy sensors can use 70% less energy for lighting – depending on room size, type of lighting, and use of space.
  • Tip #9 – Provide healthy lunch meals and learn to teach employees about general sustainable food practices: Creating a sustainable and healthy food culture in the workplace starts with the employees. Educate your employees on sustainable food practices and healthy eating. This will ensure the success of your sustainable food management system and will encourage employees to continue these practices at home.

Reduce the environmental impact of food planning and preparation processes

  • Tip #10 – Cook foods that are in season: Not only does eating seasonal help the planet, but it also saves money, is less reliant on chemicals and pesticides, and is healthier for you.
  • Tip #11: Repurpose or reuse items that would go to waste: Produce that is past its prime, as well as odds and ends of ingredients and leftovers, may still be fine for cooking. Repurpose these ingredients in soups, casseroles, stir-fries, frittatas, sauces, baked goods, pancakes, or smoothies.
  • Tip #12 – Monitor portion sizes to avoid large portions: Serving the right portions for the number of people being fed is a great way to prevent overeating and wasted food. Have you ever heard the term “your eyes are bigger than your stomach”?
  • Tip #13 – Create a list each week of what items need to be used up and plan meals around it: If there are any leftover food items at the end of the week, create a list of the items that need to be eaten and plan future meals around this to prevent food waste.
  • Tip #14 – Buy ethically sourced meat and seafood: Ethically sourced meat tends to be richer in nutrients, plus animals are treated humanely, and the farms and corresponding processes have a reduced environmental impact.
  • Tip #15 – Buy organic produce: Organic foods have been grown without the involvement of fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. These chemicals are petroleum based and hence carry a high carbon footprint. Plus, they’re associated with widespread environmental damage, harming the health of native wildlife and humans. No publication better explains the sinister side of these chemicals than Rachel Carson’s Silent Sprint.

Create sustainable purchasing habits

  • Tip #16 – Buy ugly or imperfect foods: By ugly and imperfect we mean produce that doesn’t look the way we expect it to. This includes food items that are misshapen, off-sized, discolored, or damaged. An albeit old report (2013) from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization claimed that 20-40% of fresh food produce is thrown away due to cosmetic reasons. To make a positive impact, choose ugly and misshapen food items to discourage food waste.
  • Tip #17 – Source food locally: Buying local reduces food miles and the associated GHG emissions from transportation. You will also benefit the local economy by supporting farmers and businesses in your area.
  • Tip #18 – Choose certified organizations working for environmental and economic justice throughout the supply chain: Your purchasing behavior will impact the practices used by food suppliers. Hence, you want to seek organizations that support farmers who not only produce sustainable food but who promote safe and fair working conditions for their staff. For help, check out the Sustainable Food Purchasing Guide which explains how you can support suppliers doing good and how to choose the best sustainable products for you. This guide discusses the best purchasing practices regarding fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs, poultry, beef and lamb, pork, fish, and dry goods.

Learn how to sustainably store food items

  • Tip #19 – Learn how to properly store certain foods: Educate yourself on how to properly store different fruits and vegetables for maximum freshness. For example, most veggies, especially those that could wilt, should go in the high humidity drawer of the fridge.
  • Tip #20 – Refrigerate or freeze any leftovers in small, clear, labeled containers with a date: This will remind you what leftovers you have when they were cooked, and when they will go bad.
  • Tip #21 – Extend produce life with food preservation: Using the freezer, canning, and drying fruits, vegetables and herbs are excellent ways to use up a bounty and cut food loss. The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers classes to teach you the best food storage tips. These tips can easily be applied to the office cafeteria environment.

Reduce food waste

  • Tip #22 – Use the FIFO method: FIFO stands for first in, first out, which means that the oldest products are stored at the front so they are used first before they expire.
  • Tip #23 – Start composting: Repurpose food scraps into compost. Compost will give nutrient-rich soil that’s good for the environment. Check out Compostnow.org, a website that helps make urban composting easy in areas throughout the United States.
  • Tip #24 – Donate excess food to staff and food donation programs: Before composting excess food, consider what can be donated to local organizations that redistribute these excess food items to those in need. Last year, the Feeding America network and its partners reused 4.7 billion pounds of groceries.
  • Tip #25 – Recycle cooking fats, oils, and grease into biofuel: It’s possible to donate your spent oil, cooking fats, and grease to companies whose core function is to create biofuels. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is a key climate change mitigation strategy.
  • Tip #26 – Understand the difference between best by, use by, sell by, etc: Your must understand the difference between these phrases. If you don’t, perfectly edible food can end up going to waste. Not only does this understanding help reduce food waste, but it also helps farms and producers of all sizes make sure the majority of what they produce is sold. Use the following guide below to get to grips with what these phrases mean.
Term Translation
Best by date Recommendations for enjoying the product when quality is at its peak.
Sell by date Used by grocery stores to show how long they can have items on the shelf and for sale.
Use by date

Last day the manufacturer recommends consuming the product for quality reasons.
Expiration date Should not use past the date listed.

Get certified to celebrate your green achievements with the Green Business Bureau

In this article, we’ve given you 26 useful tips on how to create a sustainable food management system for the office cafeteria. Yet, for a more thorough and detailed guide to sustainability, use the Green Business Bureau‘s EcoPlanner and EcoAssessment, which provide a plethora of green initiative ideas, ordered by cost and impact, allowing you to select the most relevant and effective green solutions for your business.

With GBB, once a green initiative has been successfully implemented, this is displayed on your personalized EcoProfile. You can use your EcoProfile to accurately communicate your green achievements to employees, investors, customers, and other stakeholders. GBB will work with you to help you implement sustainable practices, not only in your office cafeteria but within every area of your business. Plus, you can work towards gaining green certification, which will allow you to display GBB’s clickable Green Seal of approval on your website – to showcase your commitment to being green.

You can find out more about the Green Business Bureau‘s sustainability tools and membership here!

Dot has a Bachelor of Science in Coastal Environmental Science from Louisiana State University and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Global Sustainability, with a concentration in Food Sustainability and Security with a Sustainable Business certificate at the University of South Florida. She is passionate about educating her friends, family, and the public about the environment and how easy sustainability can be. In her free time, she loves to spend time with her dog, cooking, and anything true crime!

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