Future Food Lab: the tomato burgers are a hit, now for the research

Nearly 5000 tomato burgers and about 1000 carrot hot dogs have been sold. The soup and cake made from leftovers are going well too. In the autumn of 2019, the Future Food Lab opened in the restaurant of the Educatorium: a collaboration between Sodexo, the caterer, the Green Office and the researchers of Future Food, one of the hubs of the strategic topic Pathways to Sustainability.

The aim

The aim of the Future Food Lab is to conduct joint research on sustainable food systems with the microcosm of the restaurant as a laboratory. This knowledge can be applied immediately in restaurants and kiosks. In other words, the university as a living lab. We are now six months down the road. How is the Future Food Lab doing and what is the current situation regarding the sustainability of catering at the university?

First results

To begin with the second question: Utrecht University made it into the national media in 2018 by routinely serving vegetarian lunches for meetings from then on. On the basis of nudging research conducted by UU behavioural psychologist Denise de Ridder, everyone who ordered lunch for their meetings was automatically given a vegetarian menu. The goal is to provide only meatless lunches, snacks and dinners paid for by the university by 2021. The effect of the nudge is now visible in figures. The caterer, Sodexo ordered 4,000 kilos less meat in 2019 than in the year before. That's about 60,000 kilos of CO, equal to half of what the university consumes annually in petrol for its own cars. It represents a 20% drop in the university's total meat purchases.

Is this an achievement to be proud of?

Merijn Smelt, who heads contract and supplier management at the Facility Service Centre (FSC), is in two minds: "We've done this within a large organisation without imposing rules. That's certainly something to be very proud of. But for someone like me who has been working on sustainable catering for five years now, it’s still way too slow."

Compared to the national trend, it may be good news however. Professor of Innovation and Director of the Copernicus Institute Marko Hekkert says that although the market for vegetarian dairy and meat substitutes is growing enormously, the actual market share remains modest so far. "It’s approximately 1% of the meat market."

New caterer

In any case, something still needs to be done for the university to achieve its own objectives in terms of sustainable catering: completely meatless banqueting in 2021 and drastically less meat in the restaurants. There will be a new caterer from July 2020. That provides opportunities, explains contract and supplier manager Anna Stamp-Jongbloed, who is responsible for the catering tender. The new caterer must meet specific sustainability requirements for logistics, water and energy. Products must be traceable. Also, about half of the food on offer in canteens will be vegetarian or vegan. "Having a new caterer will enable us to measure in a much more targeted way, because we have now firmly established the conditions. Wastage, for example." The new caterer, Eurest, already has a reasonable amount of experience with sustainable catering concepts.

Research in the Food Lab

So the tomato burgers in the Future Food Lab are going well. But is research being conducted as planned? In a small way, certainly. Thirty-three Master's students studying 'Nudging' and 'Energy Analysis' have so far carried out eight studies resulting in concrete suggestions for the caterer. They investigated which types of packaging are most sustainable, which nudges work to sell more sustainable products, how wastage can be further reduced and what the CO2 impact of the current menu is.

Yana van de Green Office
Yana Mechielsen, coördinator Food bij de Green Office

The right conditions

A nice start, but research by UU researchers and professors has so far not been forthcoming. Setting up research in practice which meets all the scientific standards is a careful balancing act. "It is not easy to create the right conditions for our scientists to conduct research here,” explains Yana Mechielsen from the Green Office. “But I think the Future Food Lab could be a perfect place for research into how you can get more people to switch from animal to vegetable proteins.” Researchers from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and Social, Health and Organisational Psychology received a grant from NWO to research this in conjunction with companies in the agrifood sector.

What is going well and what could be better?

The Future Food Lab was set up in 2019. The step from nothing to something was a big one and the arrival of the platform is an achievement in itself. Collaboration between the Green Office, the caterer and the Future Food researchers was not always easy, but it did start. However, the caterer, Sodexo had little time to implement the Master students' recommendations. Their contract expires in July 2020. What is needed in 2020 to make the Future Food Lab a success? We asked the people who set up the Future Food Lab:

"It's there, and that's fantastic. Now it's time for concrete goals, to spread the Future Food Lab's message more effectively and make resources available: time, money, people and data. Then progress needs to be monitored.”
Jesus Rosales Carreon
University lecturer at the Copernicus Institute & supervisor of living labs

"Let's evaluate it properly. Does the lab resonate with the general public? What are the numbers? How well known is it in other buildings and faculties? I was impressed by Sodexo, the caterer, who put a lot of effort into setting up the island.”
Anna Stamp-Jongbloed
Contract and supplier manager – Facility Service Centre

I hope that students and researchers will produce research results that are useful in practice. The university and the new caterer will then have to actually apply the research results.”
Yana Mechielsen
Food Campaign Coordinator – Green Office & student of sustainable business and innovation

“Specific commitments from the parties involved and financial resources from the Executive Board so that someone can coordinate the Future Food Lab programme in the next few years.”
Maria-Jose Rojo Martinez
Managing director of Future Food Utrecht

“We are only at the beginning of the development and possibilities of Future Food Lab. Now that we’re getting a new caterer, everything will have to be reinvented.”
Rene Kwant
Engagement Manager for Future Food Utrecht

“The Green Office, in conjunction with our scientists and Sodexo made a good start on purchasing from local suppliers in 2019. Now we want to make this the standard. Vegetarian is a matter of course in the Lab; after that, local and seasonal are the most important factors to make the food chain more sustainable.”
Anjelle Rademakers
Manager of the Utrecht University Green Office