Organic revolution in the canteen: Europe's steps towards a sustainable food culture
If you set off early in the morning from Garmisch-Partenkirchen through the Partnachklamm gorge to the Reintalangerhütte below the Zugspitze, you can expect magical wafts of mist over the crystal-clear mountain stream along the hiking trail on the approximately six-hour tour and the first organic-certified Alpine Club hut at an altitude of 1,369 meters. "I am convinced that organic farming is the most sustainable form of agriculture. I simply wanted to offer this quality to our guests," says hut tenant Andy Kiechle, explaining the decision, which involved major logistical challenges - but also seems to have been the right one: "The guests are positively surprised and even enthusiastic about our concept." After the Prinz Luitpold Haus in the Allgäu, which is located almost 500 meters higher, where the consistent path to a purely organic kitchen was already taken in summer 2021, the Reintalangerhütte is the second organic-certified hut of the German Alpine Association (DAV). These two extreme examples of individual catering show what is possible when it comes to organic out-of-home catering (Bio-AHV)1 if you want to.
Those responsible in politics also seem to have recognized this - some sooner, others later. In recent years, various initiatives, support programs and legislative procedures have been launched throughout Europe to increase the proportion of organic food or seasonal and regional ingredients in out-of-home catering. In addition to the increasing quality awareness of consumers, the decision to eat more organic food also has health and environmental benefits that have a positive impact on individuals and society as a whole. The potential and leverage of out-of-home catering is enormous: in Germany alone, it is estimated that more than 16 million people eat meals in communal catering every day - for example in schools, company canteens, hospitals or prisons. Added to this are the numerous meals served daily by system and individual caterers.
Organic seal for out-of-home catering in Germany
In Germany, the promotion of organic farming is a key component of government policy in order to establish a sustainable agricultural sector that minimizes the negative impact on the climate and biodiversity and maintains animal welfare standards as high as possible. In the coalition agreement, the governing parties have therefore agreed on the goal of increasing the proportion of organic farmland to 30% of the total agricultural area in Germany by 2030.
In order to create incentives for this, the German Bundestag and subsequently the Federal Cabinet approved the bill introduced by the Federal Government in the summer of 2023 to amend the Organic Farming Act and the Organic Labeling Act. The organic out-of-home catering ordinance based on this (Bio-AHVV) came into force at the beginning of October 2023, paving the way for more organic food in out-of-home catering. One of the most important measures is the introduction of an organic label, with which the German government plans to increase the proportion of organically produced food in canteens, cafeterias and restaurants. The levels planned are gold (90-100% organic), silver (50-89% organic) and bronze (20-49% organic). The aim is for providers to voluntarily label their commitment to sustainable catering and thus be able to advertise themselves. The system will be applied to the entire out-of-home catering sector. This would also give schools, retirement and nursing homes as well as public authorities the opportunity to use seals to show how high the proportion of organic food on offer is.
"Communal catering has huge potential to provide young and old with healthy, nutritious and sustainable food. Canteens, canteens and the like can use the organic label to voluntarily, simply and verifiably mark their commitment to sustainable catering and thus promote themselves," says Federal Minister of Food Cem Özdemir. For this reason, his ministry also provides funding through the Federal Organic Farming Program for companies in the out-of-home catering sector that want to include organic food in their menu for the first time or expand their organic offerings. Funding is available for the consultation itself as well as the staff training associated with the conversion or expansion.2 In practice, this should lead to company restaurants, canteens, school meals, restaurants and catering services increasingly opting for organic products and being certified accordingly.
Corresponding impetus is also being provided at federal state level: for example, the North Rhine-Westphalian Ministry of Agriculture and Consumer Protection is attempting to increase the proportion of organic food in Germany's most populous federal state by using more organic food in out-of-home catering. At the heart of this is the "NRW cooks with organic" initiative, in which advice and coaching services are being tested in five organic model regions for companies that want to use organic food in their kitchens for the first time. In addition, information events are intended to strengthen the networking of players in the out-of-home catering market according to organic standards. "We want to help ensure that local organic food ends up in the cooking pot more often in canteens, restaurants or school catering," said North Rhine-Westphalian State Secretary Dr. Martin Berges, explaining his commitment to the initiative at the award ceremony for three organic lighthouse projects in May 2023.3
Denmark sets standards in out-of-home catering
Denmark plays a pioneering role in the integration of organic food in out-of-home catering. Back in 2012/2013, the Scandinavians initiated the Organic Action Plan 2020, which focused on increasing the proportion of organic food in public kitchens. A study that evaluated the effectiveness of this plan reported a significant increase in the proportion of organic food in the participating public kitchens. On average, the proportion of organic food increased by 24 percentage points during the conversion projects. In addition, the percentage of public kitchens that qualified for the organic kitchen label in silver (60-90% organic food sourcing) or gold (90-100% organic food sourcing) doubled from 31% to 62%.4 The switch to organic food also had a positive impact on the composition of meals served in public kitchens. An increased use of pulses, fruit and vegetables and a reduced use of meat and meat products were observed. In addition, the study also showed reduced food waste and increased use of seasonal and local foods.
European trend: More organic food in out-of-home catering
The strategic importance of organic farming was recognized in Italy around 20 years ago and resulted in the National Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming (PAN-ABPB) to promote and disseminate organic products in Italy and abroad. Building on this, the Italian parliament passed a new law in 2022, on the basis of which, among other things, an organic label "Made in Italy" was introduced as part of a national strategy to promote organic production in the entire agricultural sector. In 2020, a fund of 5 million euros was also set up for organic school canteens. It is intended to enable participating regions to provide organic meals in selected schools at no extra cost to parents and to carry out information and advertising measures to promote healthy eating.5 In the Emilia-Romagna project region alone, 8.8 million organic meals were served to pupils in 2022.6 "The funding provided helps to improve the quality of school meals without placing an excessive burden on families - but above all it helps to promote greater awareness of healthy food," explains Alessio Mammi, the regional councillor responsible for agriculture.
A few years ago, a law was passed in France to ensure that at least 40 percent of the food used in school canteens, public catering and social institutions must be seasonal and locally grown and 20 percent must be certified organic. The subsequently established National Council for Community Catering (CNRC) is to ensure that at least half of the food purchased by the public sector is "organic, sustainable or under official quality labels" from 2022 onwards.7 In Austria, an action plan for sustainable public procurement sets clear targets for more regionality and more organically produced food in public canteens. By 2023, around 25 percent of food will come from organic production. By 2025, the proportion of organic food should then increase to at least 30 percent, and by 2030 to at least 55 percent.
From the organic canteen to a health-conscious and sustainable eating culture
The integration of organic food in out-of-home catering - especially in school and company canteens - has a positive impact on people's health and the environment. People who work or study in places where the value of a conscious and ecological diet can be experienced in every respect also make healthier and more environmentally friendly nutritional decisions in their personal environment. The organic movement has already created good conditions and positive effects in various parts of Europe. Continuing these efforts and adapting to local conditions and needs will be crucial to creating a more sustainable and healthier future for all. By overcoming challenges such as the higher cost of organic food, its logistics or the control and effective use of opportunities, out-of-home catering can become a driver for positive change in terms of health, sustainability and conscious eating. With this goal in mind, the organic inspector is certainly happy to climb the one and a half to two hours to the Prinz Luitpold Haus below the Hochvogel in the Allgäu.
4 Source: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/effectiveness-of-the-danish-organic-action-plan-2020-to-increase-the-level-of-organic-public-procurement-in-danish-public-kitchens/6B7AB42A91529E2EBCD5D12373A3B328