Sustainable Food – At What Cost?

Mention a local, sustainable food program to most chefs and foodservice operators, and you might see a glazed look in their eyes. Or worse, they will start shaking, stuttering, and breaking into cold sweats, mumbling something like “it costs too much” while looking for a way out of the conversation. By converting conventional food programs into more sustainable models, I have not only experienced these anxiety symptoms myself, but I have also found a tonic to cure them.


Sustainable food promotes environmental, economic, social, and nutritional well-being. However, in terms of the exact models of a sustainable food program, whether in a school system, hospital, restaurant, or university, no two models are alike, nor should they be. Locality, fiscal and physical limitations, staff size, and skill level are just some of the factors that make this type of program challenging to replicate. However, when it comes to dollars and cents, each institution shares the same common denominators: food, work, and other expenses. These realities will ultimately be affected – up or down – and that can ensure the success of a program.

The Real Cost of Food

The difference between purchasing sustainably produced food and conventional food is likely to be more generous. And it should be! For too long, we have paid a hidden cost for “cheap food,” and this cost is beginning to manifest itself in countless environmental, health, and trade tragedies. Small and medium-sized farmers and producers deserve a fair price for their efforts, and we must give it to them. The good news is that there is a way to reduce the impact on our bottom line and support these artisans simultaneously.

Many wonder how much more it will cost. Let’s be clear: food costs typically account for one-third of our total expenses. Therefore, any shift to buying more sustainable food will only impact a portion of our total budget. This, coupled with the fact that it is unlikely that we will replace each ingredient with a sustainable equivalent, means that changes in food costs will represent no more than a percentage of your total operating costs.

The food service industry has created its monster. For years, we have responded to customer dissatisfaction with quantity rather than quality. We add more options. We increase the size of the menu, the size of the food court, and everything – including portions! Well, guess what? Customers are often still unhappy. What’s needed is more emphasis on fewer choices. And the results you can expect? Less waste, more attention to detail, more resources for a better quality product.

Labor costs

Like food, the labor costs and staff levels required to produce sustainable food will fluctuate with the program’s scale. Fresh, whole foods require more “manual labor” than processed foods. However, many do not stop to realize that with some strategic menu planning, you can save labor. If staff levels were designed to produce a menu loaded with many options, reducing those choices and focusing on the quality rather than the number of ingredients will help balance the workload.

But be aware of staff skill levels. For too long, many “cooks” have become complacent in their art. Those who had culinary skills, to begin with, may have forgotten or misplaced them with the advent of highly processed foods. In recent decades, there has been an influx of less-skilled labor into the foodservice sector – it doesn’t take much talent to open cans and tins and work in a line kitchen. It’s essential to teach staff how to handle all these new and marvelous foods properly. What is the point of investing in better food if the customer is served food that is poorly prepared and poorly presented? The investment in restructuring and staff training cannot be neglected; otherwise, the result will waste time and money.

Other costs

Other costs, such as infrastructure, equipment, marketing, and advisory resources, need to be considered part of a more sustainable food program. But like food and labor costs, they should not be overlooked either. Systematically reviewing the entire food chain, from purchasing to service, will reveal opportunities and limitations and ultimately create a menu that uses ingredients that will fit your business model.

And don’t go it alone! Would a neurosurgeon start his practice without training? Would you hire a chef who has no experience in the kitchen? So why would you try a sustainable food program without using the best resources? Look for well-connected organizations in agriculture. Use the many “Farm-to-Chef” and “Farm-to-School” programs that exist across the state and country. Hire a resource to help you get it right. One thing I hear most often when I travel around the restaurant world is, “Oh, we know how to do this ourselves.” We don’t need any help”. If that’s the case, why are there so few genuinely sustainable food programs?

In the end, a sustainable food program may cost a little more, but it will also provide peripheral savings. I have seen kitchens eliminate disposable dishes, set up composting programs, then save on waste removal and procurement costs.

On the one hand, engaging in the process of prioritizing sustainability is not an easy undertaking. On the other hand, any conventional restoration program that is fortunate enough to be led by people 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 front, stop mumbling about costs and seize this opportunity. Such a modest investment will ultimately pay off for everyone.

Leave a Reply