Sustainable food? Great, but at what cost?

Published on : June 22, 2010

Sustainable food?  Great, but at what cost?

Sustainable food? Great, but at what cost?

Mention a local and sustainable food program to most chefs and food service operators and you might see a glazed look in their eyes. Worse yet, they’ll start to shake, stutter and break out in a cold sweat, mumbling something about “costing too much” as they look for any way out of the conversation. In my own experiences converting conventional food programs into more sustainable models, I’ve not only experienced these anxious symptoms myself - I’ve found a tonic to help cure them.


Sustainable food promotes environmental, economic, social, and nutritional well-being. However, in terms of exact models of a sustainable food program, whether in a school system, hospital, restaurant or university there are no two that are, nor should be, alike. Locale, fiscal and physical limitations, staff size and skill level, are just a few of the factors that make this type of program hard to duplicate. However, when it comes to dollars and cents, every establishment shares the same common denominators – food, labor, and other expenses. It’s these realities that will ultimately be affected, up or down, and can ensure a program’s success.

The Real Cost of Food

The difference of purchasing sustainably produced food compared to that of conventional food is likely going to be higher – and it should be! For too long we’ve been paying a hidden cost for “cheap food” and that cost is starting to rear its ugly head in untold environmental, health, and small business tragedies. Small to mid-sized farmers and producers deserve a fair price for their toils and we need to give it to them. The good news is that there is a way to lessen the impact on our bottom line and support these artisans at the same time.

Many get confused about how much more this will cost. Let’s set some facts straight - The cost of food generally averages about one-third of our total expenses; therefore, any change to buying more sustainable foods will in reality only impact a portion of our total budget. This compounded by fact that there is little chance one will replace every single ingredient with a sustainable counterpart, means that changes in food costs will be no more than a percentage of the percentage of your total operating costs.

The food service industry has created its own monster. For years we’ve been reacting to customer dissatisfaction by offering quantity rather than quality. We add more options, increase the size of the menu, the size of the food court, the size of everything – including portions! Well, guess what? Customers are often still unhappy. What’s needed is to place more focus on fewer choices and the results that can be expected are less waste, more attention to detail, and more resources for higher quality product.

Labor Costs

Just like food, labor expenses and the staffing levels required to produce sustainable food will fluctuate with the extent of the program. Fresh, whole foods require more “hand work” than processed foods do. However, what many don’t stop to realize is that with some strategic menu planning, you can economize labor. If staffing levels were designed to produce a menu loaded with several options, then a reduction of those choices and a focus on the quality not quantity of ingredients will allow balancing the workload.

Be aware of the staff’s skill levels though. For too long, many so called “cooks” have become complacent in their particular art. Those who had culinary skills in the first place, may have forgotten or misplaced them with the advent of highly processed foods. In addition, over the last several decades there has been an influx of lesser skilled labor in the food service industry – it doesn’t require much talent to open up boxes and cans and work an assembly line kitchen. Teaching staff to properly handle all this new and wonderful food is critical. What good is an investment in better food, if the customer gets served poorly prepared and presented food? Investment in restructuring and training of staff cannot be overlooked because the ultimate result will end in a lot of wasted time and money.

Other Costs

Other costs like infrastructure, equipment, marketing, and consultative resources must be considered when addressing a more sustainable food program. Just as in food and labor costs, these need to not break the bank either. By systematically reviewing the entire food chain, from purchasing through service, one will realize opportunities as well as limitations, ultimately creating a menu that uses ingredients that will fit your business model.

Also, don’t go through it alone! Would a brain surgeon start his practice without an education? Would you hire a chef that has no experience in the kitchen? Then why attempt a sustainable food program without tapping into the best resources? Look for organizations well connected in the agricultural field. Utilize the many Farm-to-Chef and Farm-to-School programs that exist on a statewide and national level. Hire a resource to help get it right. One thing I hear most often as I go around the food service world, is “Oh, we know how to do that ourselves. We don’t need any help.” Well, if that’s the case, why are there are so few truly sustainable food programs out there?

Ultimately, a sustainable food program might cost a bit more, but it will realize peripheral savings as well. I’ve seen kitchens eliminate disposable tableware and implement composting programs; then go on to save money on trash removal and supply costs. I’ve witnessed increased employee health and morale due to new ways of working and living, not to mention the increase in sales due to the public demand for this.

Engaging in the process of prioritizing sustainability is not an easy undertaking. On the other hand, any conventional food service program fortunate enough to be led by individuals who have the courage and willingness to invest in knowledgeable resources, training, and dedicated effort, will reap the abundant benefits of this new food movement. So wipe that sweaty brow, stop mumbling about costs, and stand up to this opportunity. There will ultimately be a very large return for everyone, on such a modest investment.

About the author

John Turenne, founder and President of Sustainable Food Systems, is a nationally recognized leader and innovator in sustainable food practices. Recognizing the impact of food service decision-making on the world around us, John’s consulting company is on the cutting edge in developing the best practices tailored to benefit both the planet and the bottom line for clients.

John and his team at Sustainable Food Systems have worked with visionaries across the country who have had the desire to make positive changes to the way they do business. Sustainable Food Systems brings those ideas and desires to reality through careful assessment, planning, teaching and development.

John’s impressive client list includes The Culinary Institute of America, Yale University, Harvard Medical School, Jamie Oliver Ltd., The New Hampshire Department of Education, Kaiser Permanente as well as several public hospital and school systems.

John Turenne and Sustainable Food Systems continues to harvest national and international recognition.