Healthy diet – healthy planet?

Partnership is very often how we get things done at WWF. We’ve been working to convene influential groups, market leaders, and communities for years, creating household names in certification like the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) to ensure a rise in standards.


Our work with businesses is driven by the pressing need for a major shift in how our economy works, whilst retaining an ability to address current and urgent environmental challenges. 


One of those challenges relates to the food sector. Why does WWF work on food? It’s the one question I get asked more than any other about my job and it’s a reasonable one; after all most people know WWF as a conservation charity working to protect endangered species such as the panda, which forms our iconic logo.


The simple answer is we realise that in order to achieve our conservation aims we need to address the drivers of the habitat loss that is pushing some of our most precious species to the brink of extinction. One of these drivers is food. In fact, some of the greatest challenges facing the natural world in the 21st century are directly related to food and agriculture. For example, much of the deforestation that is happening across large parts of the world is to create more land for growing animal feed, and crops like soya and palm oil which we consume as ingredients in everyday grocery products, while the extraction of water for irrigating these crops is putting huge pressure on our water sources.


These issues need to be looked at in a holistic way. We wanted to look at the food we eat and explore how we can encourage people to adapt their diets so that both our health and the environment benefit. One holistic way of doing this is by working in partnership with progressive businesses such as Sodexo.


WWF has been working in partnership with Sodexo globally since 2010 and in the UK since 2013. The focus of our work here has been on developing meals that are good for people and the planet. The result is Green & Lean: a range of meals for the independent schools sector that follow ten simple principles that make them more nutritious and better for the environment. In practice this has meant substituting some of the meat, which has a high carbon footprint, with low-carbon, nutritious alternatives such as vegetables and pulses, as well as using wholegrains rather than refined grains, minimising levels of salt and sugar and sourcing certified meat and fish. We piloted ten sustainable meals at eight schools around the turn of the year, replacing almost a tonne of meat with healthy vegetables and pulses in the process, and receiving positive feedback from both students and chefs.


So what have we learnt so far? Firstly, that delivering innovative projects such as Green & Lean takes time and effort and inevitably involves taking a few twists and turns along the way. With Sodexo we initially focused on trying to deliver our objective through a range of pre-prepared sandwiches and wraps. It quickly became apparent however that reformulating a packaged product such as a sandwich posed a number of challenges around product integrity, shelf life and consumer acceptability. Hopefully we’ll find solutions to those challenges, but at the time, we’d focused our attention in the wrong place. However, the project was far from a waste of time as it helped establish relationships and build trust between key WWF and Sodexo personnel, and required both of us to see things from the other’s point of view. We’re also more aware of the challenges we face.


When working in partnership, trust is a word that crops up again and again. We both have our own organisational priorities but for a partnership to work it’s vital there is mutual trust and that, ultimately, everyone is fully committed to achieving the same end goal. In our case, that goal is to embed a sustainable meals offer within the Sodexo business so that in the long-term it becomes the norm rather than the exception – the difference, if you like, between genuinely transformative change and soft-touch CSR.


Sodexo serves in excess of a million meals a day in the UK - in schools, hospitals, workplace canteens, and many other settings - giving them huge influence over the food we, the public, consume. They also know their customers far better than WWF ever could and so with their detailed market insight coupled with our subject matter expertise, together we can deliver a pioneering programme of work far better than by working separately.


And if by working in partnership there is extra scrutiny placed on the integrity of our work then we say: bring it on. We’re very clear that businesses should only benefit from the halo effect of working with a trusted brand like WWF if they make good on our joint commitment to deliver meaningful change. Businesses that know their own resources and indeed their very future is also at stake ask us to challenge them.


The next phase of the partnership will see Green & Lean meals rolled out to the entire independent schools sector in September with the intention being that sustainable meals will become firmly embedded within the Sodexo business in the years ahead. No doubt there will be more bumps in the road, but I firmly believe that our shared experiences and complementary skills will ensure that, together, we will continue to achieve our goals.


Nick Hughes is food sustainability adviser at WWF-UK.


Photograph: WWF-UK.

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