The Soil Association's 'Catering Mark' is helping to deliver good food for all

Catering Mark may not guarantee quite this at every meal - but it's delivering huge improvements on the standard catering fare of yesteryear. Photo: pablo santa cruz diaz via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Catering Mark may not guarantee quite this at every meal - but it's delivering huge improvements on the standard catering fare of yesteryear. Photo: pablo santa cruz diaz via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
The Food for Life 'Catering Mark' is bringing fresh, healthy and local food into schools, hospitals and canteens, writes Peter Melchett - while driving big increases in the volume of organic food we eat, and growing the market for organic farmers and local food producers.
We are not at 100% organic, nor Denmark's 60%, nor Sweden's 25%, but at least after decades of declining food standards, we are starting to move in the right direction.

Remember the 'Turkey Twizzlers' debacle? Back in 2005 celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made them a symbol of everything that was wrong with our food - and the catering sector in particular.

It was revealed that this processed meat food, widespread in school meals, contained one third turkey meat supplemented with another 34 ingredients from pork fat to hydrogenated vegetable oil, and enough E-numbers to shake a stick at.

So when the Soil Association developed its Food for Life 'Catering Mark', it was to drive improvements in a food sector widely perceived as having lost its way.

Its aim was, and remains, to raise standards of nutrition, food quality, provenance and environmental sustainability for food served in workplaces, hospitals, schools, care homes and restaurants across the UK.

Its standards - criticised in an article on The Ecologist last week by our former trustee Lynda Brown as lacking in ambition and transparency - are designed to be tough but achievable: removing the worst foods from a health, sustainability and animal welfare perspective; promoting the best; and improving the rest.

We do not pretend that Catering Mark delivers everything we desire. But it is bringing about important improvements in the quality of the food that sustains huge numbers of us across the UK: it now covers over one million meals served each weekday, over 190 million meals a year.

It is also countering the anonymous supply chains and lack of scrutiny in the food service sector, providing the support, incentive and recognition needed to motivate caterers to improve the food they serve.

High standards of freshness, provenance and quality

The Catering Mark encompasses a wide range of standards, designed to encourage progression towards better sourcing and preparation practices. Uniquely, it provides an independent verification that high standards of freshness, provenance and quality have been met, through a robust certification process and annual audit.

And the Catering Mark reaches many places that organic standards have never reached before, while also insisting on free and easy availability of tap water, avoiding endangered fish, addressing aspects of nutrition like the balance of foods in the diet, and rewarding Fair Trade, local sourcing and lower meat consumption at Silver and Gold.

In starting the Food for Life Catering Mark, the Soil Association may be seen by a few as departing from our focus on organic farming and food. Of course, our goal is to see all catered food, and indeed all food sold by supermarkets, meeting organic standards.

But right now organic food is 1.3% of total UK supermarket sales, so the fact that 45% of Catering Mark food meets the Silver or Gold standard, and is at least 5% organic at Silver, and 15% at Gold, and is growing far faster than retail sales, is a real achievement.

We are not at 100% organic, nor Denmark's 60%, nor Sweden's 25%, but at least after decades of declining food standards, we are starting to move in the right direction.

And it's working! Catering Mark is driving a significant growth in demand for organic food - providing a growing market for organic producers, and putting more organic ingredients into our meals.

Figures released today show significant growth in organic supply into catering in 2014 - up 13.6%, reflecting the growth of the Catering Mark in schools, workplaces and hospitals. The organic catering market exceeded £1 million a week for the first time and is now worth £55.8 million a year.

Our goal is 100% organic everywhere1

The Soil Association campaigns for the UK to move to a position where all publicly funded food, in schools and hospitals, is 100% organic, and we regularly point out to British politicians that Sweden has a target of 25% organic in publicly funded meals, and Denmark's legal target is 60%. We believe similar targets must, and eventually will, happen here.

But the UK is unique in Europe in having had a series of governments giving less support to organic farming than any other in the EU, and where, compared to many European countries, people buy less organic when they shop for themselves.

One reason for this is the success that the powerful forces opposing organic - big food businesses, the pesticides and GM industries - have had in branding organic food as elitist, only fit for posh and rich (and deluded) foodies. This condemns the overwhelming majority of people to diets based on unhealthy, environmentally destructive, often cruelly produced food.

The Soil Association was founded in 1946 (long before organic standards had been invented) to support systems of food production that catered for everyone. The founders were concerned about the health and well-being of the poorest in society and were determined to change that for the better.

So, 70 years later, we could sit back and simply decry the quality of the food that over 98% of our fellow citizens eat, and complain that if they had any sense they would be like us, see the light and only buy and eat organic food. I believe that would be to betray the principles of the Soil Association, and to betray the interests of our fellow citizens.

It is the contrary belief, that everyone has the right to good food, that drove us to start our Food for Life work in schools 12 years ago - all children deserve healthy meals, to learn about how food is produced, to learn to grow food, learn to cook, and to have enjoyable school meals served in friendly surroundings.

Not just organic - more fresh fruit, vegetables in school meals

Independent research found that 28% more children at Food for Life schools ate 5 portions of fruit and veg (after two years), astonishingly 45% of their parents ate more vegetables, and that the positive effects on diet were greatest in the most disadvantaged areas.

Now 70% of schools in London that are in the Catering Mark, and 25% in England, have started out towards healthier, better quality food.

That right to good quality food applies just as much to hospital patients, NHS staff, the elderly in care homes, kids in nurseries and people eating lunch at work - this is what the Food for Life Catering Mark aims to achieve.

It is easy to forget just how bad much of catered food had become in the public and private sectors, and how firmly it was gripped by a spiral of decline, where cheapest always won.

The Catering Mark can claim some credit for the fact that this has started to change, and support from the Departments of Education, Health and Environment, based on evidence of success, and after many years of hard work, simply increases the opportunity we now have to achieve change.

So of course I think organic standards for farming and food (and health and beauty and textiles) are right (but also not perfect). I also think that if we are going to play a positive part in changing the UK's food culture, especially for the least well off, trying to start from a position where everyone has to sign up to 100% organic, or be ignored or condemned, is doomed to fail.

A significant driver of change for the better

Twelve years ago, in school food, hospital food and elsewhere, we were set on a course where no food would be cooked where it was eaten, much of the meat served was 'reconstituted', shaped and fried, sandwiches could be made one side of England and eaten the other side of the country.

No one, including those serving the food knew where any of it came from nor how it had been produced, and the idea that organic food had any part to play in the cheap (and nasty) food served in most schools, hospitals, care homes, nurseries and many work places, was treated as a bad joke.

The Catering Mark has started to change that, and the fact is, thanks to it, there are now 280,000 school meals served daily at Silver with at least 5% organic food, and 150,000 school meals served daily at Gold with at least 15% organic.

We are not at 100% organic, nor Denmark's 60%, nor Sweden's 25%, but at least after decades of declining food standards, we are starting to move in the right direction.



Peter Melchett is Policy Director of the Soil Association.

Also on The Ecologist: 'The Soil Association's 'Catering Mark' - a compromise too far?' by Lynda Brown, former Soil Association trustee.


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