Whatever happened to Food Miles?

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Criteo’s Head of Workplace Experience EMEA, Mike Walley, like the vast majority of us, is thinking about food – and, more specifically, where it comes from. And we don’t mean Pret or Subway! 

I was thinking about workplace food offerings the other day and musing on what is currently de rigeur. At the moment the main keywords are ‘choice, healthy and fresh’. People want food that meets the needs of all the main choice groups – carnivore, vegetarian, vegan etc, and they want it to be good for them. They still want chocolate in the snacks offering though!

The breakfast of choice is, of course, the crushed avocado on sourdough toast. The avocado meets all the requirements of healthy while the sourdough fills you up and stops you looking for the chocolate before lunchtime. They are usually piled up in a fruit bowl that is full of the other great workplace staple…the banana.

This, of course, just reflects the greater understanding we now have with regards to healthy eating in general. It also means workplace managers can no longer take the easy option of a coin operated snack machine full of fats and sugars and call it a food offering.

The other benefit of fresh food is that it does reduce the waste generated by packaging and wrappings and, in this world of Corporate Social Responsibility, waste reduction is a good thing. This is another element of the modern workplace that is of concern to people. We have eco programmes, waste reduction drives, energy efficiency drives and constantly look to reduce the impact that business has on the environment.

So, whatever happened to food miles?

‘Food miles’ was a term coined in the 1990s to highlight the environmental impact of moving produce around the world to ensure we can have fresh strawberries on our Christmas pavlova. It looked at the global impact of transport and the local impact of production, ie. container ships ploughing across the world’s oceans belching fumes from their smokestacks and acres of southern Spain covered in plastic to grow out-of-season strawberries.

It is curious (at least to an old fart like me) that as businesses get more aware and accountable for the impact they have on the environment, we seem to have forgotten about the impact the food we serve can have socially and environmentally, and not just on our health. In a previous life, I was a chef and it was all we discussed at the time. Menus were built around the food miles, we strove to get the lowest mileage into our recipes. Then it slowly shifted to be about ‘seasonal produce’ and that morphed into ‘local produce’ and we then forgot all about the environment and tried to serve Norfolk carrots with our Aylesbury duck and Kent apples in the tart tatin. 

Funny, but nobody ever called them Honduran bananas.

Let us look at the banana. That’s the one that vanishes most quickly from the office fruit basket.
– More bananas are exported from Latin America than any other fruit from any other location.
– The banana industry uses more agrochemicals than any other industry, with the exception of the cotton industry.
– The ships that bring them to Europe are one of the most polluting forms of transport on the planet.

What about avocados?

Not only do they have the same food mile issues, but they have the added problem that many of the farms are being seized by the drug cartels to allow them to launder money.

Now that’s quite a list, and there’s me thinking they were both good for you!

Now, before I get written off as an unrealistic environmentalist, I am not suggesting for a moment that we should boycott bananas and avocados. The situation is far more complex than the simple points I raise here and needs a more complex response. I just wanted to highlight the selective thinking that occasionally occurs when we forget to look at the big picture. Can we really claim to be green if we don’t at least acknowledge these issues? Can we be healthy at the expense of the planet? Big questions, I admit.

I honestly don’t have the answers. All I want to do here is to get us all reflecting on the issues at those moments when we place orders, or react to fads and fashions in food. Maybe we too should push local produce to our customers? Really, what is nicer than a piece of sharp cheddar, topped with a slice or two of Bramley apple? Put it on toast, and there is breakfast!

As someone once said when it comes to food, ‘Every little helps’!