Serving locally-grown nutritious foods is not only healthier, also saves money

By Guest Columnist CHRISTIAN HARDIGREE, director and professor of the Institute for Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality at Kennesaw State University

The future of the food service and hospitality sector belongs to smart operators who hire talented, bright managers. That’s why Kennesaw State University created a bachelor’s program to train and inspire the next generation of managers in sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Consider the magnitude of the U.S. restaurant industry. It generates approximately $660 billion in sales (4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product), while employing 8.6 percent of the total workforce. In 2013, Georgia’s restaurants are projected to register $16 billion in sales, while employing 10 percent of the workforce, with estimates for 14 percent job growth over the next 10 years.

These numbers do not include the often underrepresented role that foodservice plays in hospitals, adult and childcare facilities, K-12, colleges, universities, spas, and food manufacturing and distribution.

At the same time, our nation is facing some troubling trends that food service managers can address:

Christian Hardigree

Christian Hardigree

Americans eat an average of 18.2 meals outside the home monthly, often struggling to find healthy options. We spend $110 billion on fast food annually, with one in four visiting a fast food restaurant daily.

A recent study assessed the nutritional quality of 3,498 possible children’s meal combinations, finding 97 percent did not meet the experts’ nutrition standards, and 91 percent did not meet the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell standard.

Obesity is the leading cause of preventable death in America, and some 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese. Georgia has the second highest rate of childhood obesity (just ahead of Mississippi), with nearly 40 percent overweight or obese (10 of every 25 children). It is estimated that 90 to 95 percent of the 25.8 million people who have diabetes have Type 2 diabetes – the type related to weight.

Environmental concerns include restaurants consuming five to 10 times more energy than commercial buildings of the same size, wasting an estimated 80 percent of the $10 billion spent on energy annually. Utilities represent 3 to 8 percent of a restaurant’s overall costs.

Our ecological footprints are huge – the average American meal travels 1,500 miles to your plate and contains ingredients from five countries. We tell chefs to use fresh herbs, and we tell restaurateurs to have herb gardens. But where are we teaching businesses the techniques about what to plant, when to plant it, what to do when it struggles, when to harvest?

The bright food services managers of the future will respond to these challenges with sustainable best practices, emphasizing areas such as resource conservation, food science, nutrition, agro-ecology, as well as essential business skills and abilities.

They will be adept at sourcing local food, establishing water, energy and food conservation programs, and applying resource management techniques to run a sustainable food hospitality operation in an environmentally conscious, economically beneficial manner.

And they will be able to evaluate how a business can reduce its ecological, water and carbon footprints in an economically advantageous manner.

This includes methods for improving the supply chain, reducing packaging through targeted purchasing and cost control, choosing green methods for pest management and cleaning, using and/or recycling biofuels, bringing energy efficiency to the kitchen and redesigning the waste stream as a cost-saving endeavor.

As the third largest and fastest growing university in Georgia, KSU is determined to provide an education that is relevant in today’s world. The new bachelor’s program does this for the food industry by transcending the traditional culinary arts or hospitality management curricula to incorporate and infuse the study of sustainable best practices, emphasizing areas such as resource conservation, food science, nutrition, agro-ecology, as well as essential business skills and abilities.

The program intends to produce qualified graduates prepared to respond to the growing crises on local, state, national and international levels in terms of health initiatives, agricultural integrity, resource conservation and sustainable business practices.

In addition, the program provides a unique collaboration with KSU’s Culinary & Hospitality Services, which operates 65-plus acres of farmland, a 2,400-square-foot campus herb garden and oversees the Commons, an award-winning LEED Gold certified dining operation, as well as eight other campus foodservice venues.

In May, KSU was named by the National Restaurant Association as the “Innovator of the Year” and received the “Operator Innovations Award for Sustainability.”

The Commons regularly implements new practices and technologies including hydroponics, recycling cooking oil to bio-fuel, and integrating a bio-digester to break down waste food into nutrient-enhanced water used at the farms. The closed-loop, “farm-to-campus-to-farm” initiative is integral to the academic components of the program, providing students with experiential learning in implementing these techniques.

The food industry is evolving quickly. Success will depend on smart management which understands how sustainable practices can impact the bottom line as well as the environment.

For example, pairing fine Georgia wines with a local menu is better economically and environmentally than transporting mediocre wines 1,700 miles. And $1 in energy savings equates to $12.50 in sales.

This is the type of knowledge can help a business increase profitability without touching the price point on the menu or the customer turnover rate.

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