Stephen Jardine: We can learn a valuable lesson from Scandinavia

Danish food is about more than just pastries, but the country required a major shake-up to stop the national offering going stale.

Danish food is about more than just pastries, but the country required a major shake-up to stop the national offering going stale.

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Something was rotten with the state of Denmark’s food offering, says Stephen Jardine

Ten years ago, something was up with the food in Copenhagen.

The Nordic food revolution was underway and Noma was on a culinary journey to become the best restaurant in the world. But in hospitals, nurseries and canteens across the city, public food was the same as it had always been.

The Copenhagen House of Food changed all that. Backed by the city authorities, the organisation set out to revolutionise what people ate across the Danish capital. Led by food entrepreneur Anya Hultberg, the aim was to get people eating better in a sustainable way. By 2009, 60 per cent of the food being served was organic but the target was to take that total to 90 per cent. They achieved that last year without any additional spend on catering budgets. The key was menu planning and a new centralist approach to training and staff development.

Last week Anya Hultberg came to Scotland to share Copenhagen’s remarkable success story with the Scottish Government. If the Danes are taking great strides to improve public food, we are still on the starting blocks.

The experience varies from school to nursing homes, workplace canteens to hospitals but even in the best performing areas in Scotland, organic food makes up only 15 per cent of the total. The Soil Association is leading the charge to change things here. It’s Food for Life catering mark has been adopted by a third of Scotland’s local authorities with key standards featuring in more than 18 million meals every year. However only three local authorities have achieved the top level gold award which requires produce used to be 15 per cent organic.

Following Anya Hultberg’s visit, the push is now on to encourage others here to make that commitment but change is never easy. In these days of austerity and shrinking budgets, shouldn’t healthy, nutritious and seasonal take priority over some commitment to a random organic target?

“When austerity hits, the food budget is often the first to be cut which signals a return to cheap, processed food. As the obesity crisis demonstrates, this is just storing up costly public health problems for the future,“ said Laura Stewart, Director of Soil Association Scotland.

“There’s huge amount of work to be done. With figures released this week showing that over the past ten years 83,000 Scottish children started primary school overweight or obese. This public health crisis needs to be dealt with now and the public sector plate could provide some solutions,” she added.

The key to success in Denmark’s capital seems to have been the highly focused, coordinating role of the Copenhagen House of Food. It provided leadership and strategy as well as centralising procurement bringing 10 per cent of Denmark’s buying power under one roof. In contrast, in Scotland’s capital city, responsibility for public food provision is spread across a wide range of providers including the NHS, charities and contract caterers.

The Danes also invested in staff training to motivate catering teams by increasing their skills set. The Copenhagen House of Food ended the use of frozen produce and increased the amount of vegetables being served while cutting the quantity of meat. Menus were driven by the season, bread and snacks were made inhouse and kitchens operated with a simple money saving mantra: less waste, more efficiency.

The impact has been astonishing and has proved organic need not be just some middle class, sack cloth and ashes hobbyhorse. In Copenhagen it is simply how 80,000 meals are served every day in 900 locations across the city.Could that model work here? With a similar climate and roughly equivalent agricultural and fisheries production, there is absolutely no reason why not.

What it will take is a bold commitment, joined up thinking and initial investment to get a similar programme up and running. Anya Hultberg’s meeting with the Scottish Government might just be the first step on a journey to changing the way we eat.

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