Public sector caterers are being made the focus of a campaign by The Vegan Society to make sure vegan options are properly represented on their menus. David Foad reports
A vegan option on your menu could be more than just a good business idea – it might become a legal necessity for caterers if The Vegan Society gets its way.
It is pitching veganism as a belief rather than a simple food choice. If this idea is supported legally it could come within the scope of international human rights legislation and mean caterers will be obliged to provide a vegan choice.
The groundwork was laid earlier this year when The Vegan Society launched a new campaign called Catering for Everyone, which aims to ensure the needs of vegans are met in public sector institutions, and that more vegan options are served on public sector menus.
Louise Davies, head of The Vegan Society’s campaigns, policy and research, says: “We are calling for councils to lead by example by improving the vegan provision in their offices and influencing the institutions in their local authority.
“We’re asking our public services to provide tasty, nutritious and appropriate vegan options not just for vegans, but for everyone, every day.
“As well as supporting the rights of vegans, this would promote the wider benefits of veganism for people, animals and the planet.
“Indeed, any public institution looking to reduce their carbon footprint would do well do serve more vegan food.”
The campaign was launched on NHS Sustainability Day, on 22 March, and on the same day the society conferred its Vegan Trademark on a range of dishes created by health and social care food supplier Anglia Crown.
“We’re especially pleased to see Anglia Crown leading the way in providing nutritious, tasty vegan food to hospitals,” says Heather Russell, a dietitian at The Vegan Society, which is offering to help hospital food manufacturers and caterers develop their vegan offerings as part of the campaign.
Anglia Crown supplies meals to 100 UK hospitals, and Russell believes its new vegan range has the potential to influence the inclusivity, sustainability and nutritional quality of menus across the UK.
Vegan options = business opportunity
And although some might see the campaign as a threat, many caterers in the public sector believe that serving more vegan food is not simply a case of ‘ticking a box’ but represents a business opportunity, and makes sense from a public health and environmental point of view.
It was immediately endorsed, for example, by Stewart McKenzie, chair of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA), who says: “We are delighted to support The Vegan Society in their campaign for nutritious vegan meals on public sector catering menus. As an association we aim to promote, develop and improve the standards of catering in hospitals.”
Scott Buckler, campaign manager for NHS Sustainability Day, adds: “Food plays a huge role in the sustainable development agenda within the NHS. It is hugely important we support environmentally-friendly and ethical vegan food and we commend both The Vegan Society and Anglia Crown.”
“We are hoping to inspire other caterers to improve their vegan menu and we are offering help to any hospitals, prisons or public sector canteens who come forward,” says The Vegan Society’s Louise Davies.
Explaining the legal underpinnings of the campaign, she says: “Veganism has been found to come within the scope of international human rights provisions and vegans in the UK are protected under human rights and equality law.
“This means that service providers have an obligation to ensure that they do not interfere with a vegan’s right to freedom of conscience, and a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid any discrimination on the grounds of veganism.
“The protection is similar to that of religious beliefs, and veganism should be seen as a belief or philosophy as opposed to a food choice.
“We will be pushing for a stronger legal framework in the autumn – we would like to see legislation which ensures a vegan option on every public sector menu.”
The campaign notwithstanding, there seems little doubt that The Vegan Society is pushing against an open door, with interest in veganism undoubtedly growing in recent years, although hard figures are difficult to find.
The society, itself, quickly picked up on a survey earlier this year that claimed 3.5 million people in the UK now follow a vegan diet – that is 7% of the population.
However, there must be some doubt about how accurate this figure is because it is based on a survey of just 2,000 people by comparethemarket.com. The Vegan Society’s own figure from 2016 – just two ears before – showed there were 540,000 vegans in the UK, and this was based on a much bigger survey of 10,000 people carried out by Ipsos Mori.
But if you look simply at interest in vegan food rather than full-time, lifestyle commitment, then the society’s Veganuary campaign signed up 168,000 this year, while just four years ago this number was just 3,300.
What is Veganuary?
Veganuary is a charity that encourages people each year to try a vegan diet for the month of January.
And according to a recent report by media outlet Quartz, global interest in veganism outstrips that in vegetariansim.
It has analysed Google search data from 2004 to 2018 for the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ and found that for the first eight years ‘vegetarian’ was more popular. This changed in 2012, with the term ‘vegan’ jumping in popularity in 2016 to stand now as three times more likely to be used in searches than ‘vegetarian’. The move to get the public sector to offer more vegan options, however, is not without its challenges.
Pat Fellows, former chair of the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA) and a school meals consultant, does not believe that vegan provision is mentioned in the Government’s food-based nutritional standards.
“Interest is definitely being shown from school caterers about introducing a vegan option onto school meal menus,” says Fellows.
“But, although this is a growing trend, I believe that there are some difficulties in introducing this diet into school meals.
“The main issue, as I see it, is about using nuts in school kitchens. A large proportion of a vegan diet contains nuts, but there is the obvious danger to children with a nut allergy.
“Also, there are food cost factors to consider at a time when prices are rising more quickly than before.”
Neel Radia, chair of the National Association of Care Catering (NACC), is supportive, but also voices some concerns: “We encourage care chefs to cater for vegan diets, but the right training and support is important to ensure menus support nutritional needs, as well as choice.
“The nutritional benefits of ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, oils and grains are positive for everyone, vegan or not. However, vegan diets need careful planning as there is more risk of nutrient deficiency, including vitamin B12, zinc and iron.
“Chefs also need to understand and recognise ‘hidden ingredients’ that may contain animal produce to ensure they can confidently support vegan choices and the motivations behind these.”
He says the trend is clear, though: “The demand for vegan food has risen across the foodservice and hospitality industry, and the care sector is no different.
“And our members are committed to supporting the dietary requirements of every person we feed in care settings.”
Less equivocal is Matt White, chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO): “Vegan and vegetarian food is no longer just a boring salad. Veganism has become an increasingly popular food trend with millennials.
“People are curious, experimental with it, and find the dietary requirement to be a highly nutritious way to eat and drink.
“Our institutions are responding to this trend to eliminate meat and all animal products from their diet and lifestyle by offering more options of vegan and vegetarian dishes to their menus.”
The HCA’s Stewart McKenzie adds: “With veganism becoming more mainstream, the request for meat- and dairy-free meals is increasing and our caterers are meeting these needs.
“We believe that good nutrition and hydration is vital to aid recovery, therefore will always cater for the patient’s dietary requests.”
Challenges for the public sector
Caterers, though, know they will need support from suppliers who understand the particular challenges of the public sector.
Lucy Pedrick, insights manager at Bidfood, says: “With vegan diets on the up, it presents a big challenge for caterers in cost sector settings – who are often dealing with much more specialist nutritional needs – to meet this demand by providing high-quality, wholesome vegan options that are also tasty and appetising.
“The obstacles when providing more vegan options on menus in these settings are complex and diverse. Caterers are often limited to tight budgets and they need to adhere to strict nutritional standards, as well as meeting the additional nutritional needs of patients recovering from severe illness or an invasive operation, for example.
“Adding beans, pulses and lentils to food is an easy and inexpensive way to boost the nutritional content of a meal while keeping it vegan-friendly.
“Jackfruit is set to be a big trend this year. It resembles meat once cooked and absorbs the flavours of sauces it’s cooked in, meaning it’s incredibly versatile across many dishes such as fajitas, curries or hot sandwiches.”
Mark Rigby, executive chef at Premier Foods, adds: “In recent years the demand for vegan dishes has been high, and this is continuing to grow, up by 237% from 2017 to 2018.
“We recognise the importance of taking on board this trend and have included vegan dishes in our most recent sector guides.”