Can foodservice shift to a citizen mindset?

Written by Nick Hughes, this article was originally published on 

From giving chefs the power to shape menus to nurturing a diverse, engaged workforce, purpose-driven organisations are putting people at the heart of their business models, says Nick Hughes.

What does the notion of food citizenship mean in a foodservice context?

It’s a challenging, even somewhat abstract question that doesn’t – and arguably shouldn’t – elicit an instant response. But as businesses continue to search for answers to a plethora of planetary and social crises – from climate change to diet-related ill health – that will both impact and shape future businesses models, it’s an important question to consider.

Citizenship as a concept of relevance to businesses was at the heart of a recent workshop hosted by the Food Ethics Council charity. The online event brought together chefs, climate experts and other interested parties from across the foodservice sphere to discuss how leaders in the sector could adopt a food citizenship mindset as part of a collaborative effort to build a just, resilient food system.

The discussion (held under Chatham House rules) yielded some fascinating insights into how businesses could use the concept of food citizenship as a kind of ‘north star’ both for understanding and delivering against their environmental, social and financial purpose.

What is food citizenship?

The concept itself is not easily defined; food citizenship is a malleable term meaning different things to different people, but the FEC’s food citizenship coordinator Beth Bell introduced it neatly as “a way to connect people with their power in the food system….. And a way for businesses and organisations to harness that power for collective good.”

When we think about our own relationship with food as individuals, citizenship can perhaps most simply be understood as our being engaged with the food system rather than disengaged from it; or to put it another way, being a citizen is the opposite of being a passive consumer.

Having written about food for almost 20 years I can confirm that for the vast majority of food businesses the language of the consumer remains endemic. The consumer is treated as a deity whose wants and whims must be catered to at all times. Brand, commercial and even sustainability teams talk about the consumer as someone who is sold to, marketed to and innovated for. Yet the reality is the consumer has precious little agency over how our food is produced, priced and presented. It is the business or brand that is the ultimate deity in shaping what, when and how we eat.

By now you may be thinking: ‘Thanks for the cod philosophy, but what does it mean for businesses in a practical sense’?

To begin with – and to borrow from some of the insights shared during the FEC workshop – it might mean thinking about your own employees in a new way. That might start with recognising that the delivery of purposeful agendas such as net-zero, food waste reduction or diversity and inclusion goals requires exceptional people working towards a common goal – not just people paid to do a job. It might mean considering that people don’t change their values when they leave their homes and enter the office; for many employed in the foodservice sector, delivering against those agendas may be as much a vocation as a job.

It may also mean giving people within your organisation the power to drive progress within their own role. The role of chefs as ‘agents of change’ came up frequently during the discussion, not least regarding menu development. Rather than presenting chefs with a database of thousands of recipes and prescriptive menu plans, why not empower them to indulge their creativity in, for example, substituting meat with vegetables and pulses thereby reducing the carbon footprint of meals? Why not give them the tools to do so seamlessly through access to footprinting data that allows them to see in real time the carbon impact of their decisions? Treating chefs as leaders in the fight against climate change is likely to generate more engagement and enthusiasm that any number of lectures or tutorials on the subject.

Adopting a citizenship mindset may also involve recruiting more apprentices and graduates from minority ethnic backgrounds to bring a diversity of voices – and perspectives – into the organisation, including those that have hitherto been unrepresented. Or creating flexible working policies that support women to remain in the workplace and progress into senior level roles.

Supplier relations

As a catering service provider, thinking like a citizen might require you to reimagine the subservient client-contractor relationship as more of an equal partnership whereby you use your knowledge and expertise to help clients achieve their goals in areas such as decarbonisation.

It almost certainly means giving a greater voice to food producers and not imposing top down requirements on what and how they produce. We’re seeing within the burgeoning regenerative agriculture movement an appreciation of the need to respect farmers’ knowledge of their local environment and give them the freedom to experiment with practices that support good soil and ecosystem health and high standards of animal welfare – then facilitating the sharing of that knowledge among their peers.

Moreover, contributors to the FEC workshop were in agreement that adopting a citizen mindset requires there to be a connection between those producers and the people eating their produce. The proliferation of local food hubs that sit between people who produce food and those who eat it, often working with an explicit set of ethical priorities, is one distribution model that can potentially align with notions of citizenship by building these kind of meaningful connections.

Even those businesses with more conventional commercial models – a large caterer, supermarket or high street restaurant chain for example – can aspire to create a closer connection with customers by offering them greater visibility over supply chain practices. The wonders of modern technology mean you no longer have to don a pair of wellies to understand how the food on our plate has been produced. QR codes on packaging or on menus can do the job for you (while being mindful of the need to convey a true picture of production rather than a sanitised version that blurs the lines between transparency and marketing).

The illusion of choice

Better information can play a role in shaping better choices. But what does choice mean in a citizenship context? Businesses often talk about choice in the context of the number of SKUs in a supermarket or items on a menu but choice is a mirage unless you have access to accurate, unfiltered information (and the financial and practical means to buy what you want). Eco-labels promise to edge us in that direction but even these don’t tell the full story, especially when they rely on aggregated, rather than supply chain-specific data. There needs to be a genuine commitment on the part of businesses – supported by governments and civil society – to educate citizens on our food system, highlighting the bad as well as the good and what needs to happen to shift from one state to the other. And citizens need to feel like they have some agency in shaping that system.

Perhaps it also requires us as eaters to welcome the transparency and not deliberately suspend our understanding of food’s impact on people and planet for fear of spoiling the eating out experience. Some businesses are nervous about putting eco-labels on menus for fear it will negatively impact people’s enjoyment of what is often considered a ‘treat’. We have it in our gift to quell those fears.

Public priorities

But do we actually care about any of this? Are we happy being treated as consumers rather than citizens?

The evidence suggests we do care. The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) recently set out to explore in depth what people really think about food. Based on extensive public dialogue sessions in Birmingham and Cambridge held over the summer, and a new national poll of 2,000 people, it found that citizens want government intervention in the food system and reject excuses for inaction. 

A demand for swift and wide-reaching action on food to protect health, nature and the environment was consistent across all political lines. Participants overwhelmingly rejected the argument that government intervention in food would lead to a ‘nanny state’, with many feeling the oft-cited defence that ‘people don’t want a nanny state’ is just an excuse for inaction from politicians.

“In our conversations with citizens, they are very clear about the role that food plays in their lives – they see it as a way to nurture children, bring together families, connect with friends and build community. Because food plays an integral part in their lives, people feel passionately about the risks of allowing the food system to become so unhealthy and unsustainable,” said the FFCC.

It noted too how many citizens were clear in their desire for government and businesses to think outside of the box – including exploring alternative economic models that bring farmers and communities closer together, seeing this approach as a way to establish fairer returns for farmers, improve the availability of healthy and sustainable products for everyone, and deliver positive environmental outcomes.

It all feels far removed from those common notions of people as passive consumers of food. Perhaps thinking about food through a citizenship lens really can be transformational for businesses – and for our food system.

Written by Nick Hughes