We spend (at least!) a third of our lives in a place of work, where our brains are otherwise engaged away from the food we put in our mouth.

Food consumed in the workplace is often something grabbed on the run, from a vending machine or picked up in a staff canteen. But food has the potential to be much more than an added boost for the afternoon – it can help our concentration and performance as well as improve a business’s sustainability and productivity overall.

At an event held jointly by the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark team and the Forum for the Future, at Pearson PLC (FTSE 100) in London recently caterers met for the first time with business facilities managers and sustainability leads including staff from Landrover/Jaguar, Cityhall and Defra. It was a long awaited chance to discuss the problems in workplace catering, the challenges and together find a solution that will feed into renewed climate change aims and sustainability goals.

Peter Hughes, director of sustainability at Pearson PLC, said: “Food is an overlooked area of sustainability and gives a real opportunity for leadership. More than ever before, we want our staff to be able to choose their favourite foods and drinks confident in the knowledge that we and our catering partners are doing our best to source from a sustainable food system – with food miles minimised, and organic and local produce prioritised.”

In the UK over two thirds of adults are overweight and 28% are obese according to the WHO. We have the worst rates of obesity in the whole of Europe. In the workplace it’s reported that poor eating habits cost employers around £17 billion per year. That is equivalent to 97 million lost working days across the country lost due to obesity problems alone. Better, more nutritious, freshly cooked and local food can help improve the health of the nation and save billions of pounds.

Geraldine Gilbert, Principal Sustainability Advisor from Forum for the Future, told the breakfast event: “From a health perspective alone, the business case for employers pushing better diets couldn’t be clearer. Malnutrition and diet-related ill-health (eg type 2 diabetes), linked to too much food and the wrong foods, are an accelerating global phenomenon, with being overweight now affecting more people than hunger.”

To maintain a healthy diet people are advised to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg a day and minimise the amount of sugar, fats, salt and additives to their diet. But in a work situation this is not always easy. That is why the Food for Life Catering Mark is working with businesses like Pearson’s and Landrover/Jaguar to help improve the food served in the workplace across a checklist of standards, including freshly cooking at least 75% of meals, using no controversial additives or trans fats, sourcing sustainable ingredients from British farms and using only free range eggs and farm assured animal products.

The Catering Mark has already had a huge impact in schools across the country, including many inner-city areas. More than half of English primary schools now serve Catering Mark standard meals. Reports show an increased take up of meals in schools but also every £1 spent on ingredients puts £3 goes back into the local economy, for example, through employment. This food revolution is clearly making waves in education and now the onus is on workplace caterers to follow this fantastic trend.

More people are expressing an interest in sustainable food and healthy eating, with the rise of the “clean eating” trend and a growing organic market. Catering came in the top three concerns for Pearson PLC’s employees, second to sustainable paper use, in an internal survey. The head office in central London, surrounded by high street eateries, has seen increasing footfall since caterers BaxterStorey achieved a Silver Catering Mark.

Peter Hughes summarised: “From an employee engagement perspective, the Catering Mark is one of the most visible things you can do to demonstrate your sustainability credentials. Achieving the Catering Mark standard for our largest UK offices was vitally important for us and we hope that more businesses will now support this initiative.”

Businesses should get ahead of the trend and make sure they’re not just giving employees what they want, but what they need, and what will in turn help the business and the environment. To find out more about the Catering Mark go to: https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/the-food-for-life-catering-mark/

Emily McCoy is press officer at the Soil Association.

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