The case for caterers

Offering more plant food can increase your profits

A study by the University of Cambridge[1] found that introducing more plant-based options does not change sales revenue in the context of university catering. What about profitability? (revenue minus costs). This was not in the scope of the study but discussed briefly in its final section: On the one hand, catering participants noted that the ingredient cost for plant-based food was lower than for animal-based options. On the other, they said that vegetable-based food had higher labour costs; therefore the effect on profitability is ambiguous. This effect does not have to be ambiguous; it can be positive.

Plant-based food is only more effort if you use inefficient cooking methods like preparing everything on-site. Most university caterers rely on prepared and partially pre-cooked foods like cut vegetables in any case. We think that’s fantastic, because it saves catering staff time and allows for more affordable consumer prices. Here are some cheap ingredients that enable you to cook delicious meals with plant food.

  • Ready-made plant-based sauces
  • Hummus
  • Plant-based milks, creams and yoghurts
  • Beans and other pulses like lentils
  • Plant-based steaks and patties made from beans or pulses

Plant-based ingredients can – like any type of food – be costly. High-end plant-based cheese made from cashew nuts is certainly pricy. But at the university catering level, as noted in the Cambridge study[1] above, plant-based ingredients are generally cheaper than animal-based options. In fact, some of the cheapest recipes around the world are entirely plant-based.

If there is a burden from introducing plant-based food, then it is the ‘menu cost’ of getting staff used to new recipes and literally printing new menus. This is a fantastic opportunity to invest in your employees and provide them with continuous learning opportunities. After investing some time into this transition, you will see that the reduced ingredient cost will increase your overall profitability. That’s why so many food chains are already offering more plant-based food than the average university caterer; they do this for profit.[2]

Our support

Food4Thought provide free meal plans and can link you up with wholesale suppliers of delicious and affordable plant-based food that you can use in your operations.

Our friends at DefaultVeg have assembled a free list of more than 5,000 recipes suitable for public sector catering.

Feel free to get in touch at

Ten reasons for using more plant food in universities

  1. Profit: More plant food can increase profitability or have a neutral effect (see above)
  2. Demand: Until 2022, a quarter of the British population will be made up of vegans and vegetarians, and nearly half will be flexitarian, according to market research firm Mintel.[2] This is being recognised by some of the biggest restaurant chains such as Pret a Manger, Costa, McDonalds, and KFC who have launched vast amounts of plant-based dishes in the past 24 months. Mintel data also shows that almost one in four food products launched in Britain in 2019 was entirely plant-based[3].
  3. Continuous education for your staff: Teaching your staff plant-based cuisine is a fantastic opportunity for a team-building and motivating workshop.
  4. Pandemic prevention: 60% of recent pandemics are so-called zoonoses, i.e. infections that attack both animals and humans. The less we hunt and farm animals, the safer we are from them. Covid-19 epidemic started on a meat market for hunted animals. But also farmed animals are a great danger. For example ‘mad cow disease’ came from cows to humans and caused Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob disease. It is not curable to date and has cost hundreds of human lives. Avian flu was spread via chickens. Read more
  5. Hygiene and consumer health: Animal-based food is contaminated more often and requires longer cooking to be safe than plant-based food does. Contamination examples include E. coli and salmonella. Furthermore, some animal products like red animal meat and processed animal meat are carcinogenic. Read more
  6. Inclusivity: Plant-based food can be eaten by anyone and is nutritionally complete. It can save you the effort of cooking vegetarian or halal food, because plant-based food can be eaten by both these groups. In fact, plant food is often preferred by omnivores. Read more
  7. The law: In the UK, the practice of eating kosher, halal and vegan food for ethical reasons[4] is a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010 (applicable in England, Wales and Scotland). It is illegal to discriminate against people with these diets, including in catering. The only exception is if it would be financially unviable. The onus is on caterers to demonstrate that offering vegan food would be an undue financial burden on them. This is unlikely to be successful in the context of public sector catering. As the Cambridge study[1] demonstrated, introducing plant-based options does not affect sales in university catering. As we argue above, it does not affect profitability either.
  8. Climate: A UK government report urged the public to cut meat and dairy consumption by 20% to meet the government target on climate change. As research by the University of Oxford shows[5], it makes only a minuscule difference whether animal products are produced locally or shipped across the globe; the main impact of food is from the production itself. In other words, animal products are bad for the climate no matter how they are produced. Read more
  9. Environment: Animal products use much more land and water than any plant product could ever use, because animal products require both the space to raise the animals and the space to raise their food. This land use is the main driver of deforestation, which is the main driver of the extinction of species like the tiger or orang-utan. The second main driver of species extinction is fishing. Read more about deforestation and species extinction
  10. Recognition: The catering team of the University of Cambridge introduced more plant-based options and took beef and lamb off the menu because those are the worst food products in terms of carbon footprint, land use and water use per calorie. They received two British awards for it: the Sustainability Award from The Universities Caterers Organisation (TUCO) in 2018, and the Food and Drink Green Gown Award in 2017. Read their story and watch a video about them below.

The story of Cambridge University catering

By offering more plant-based food, Cambridge University catering reduced its carbon footprint from food by a whopping 33%. See their report here or watch their video below.


[1] For a general audience summary, see the website and blog post by the researchers Veg ‘nudge’: extra vegetarian option reduces meat consumption without denting food sales . The academic study is: E Garnett, A Balmford, C Sandbrook, M Pilling, T Marteau. Impact of increasing vegetarian availability on meal selection and sales in cafeterias. PNAS 30 Sept 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1907207116 (Free to download) 

[2] ‘Meat-free food’ report, UK, May 2017. The overall market statistics tell us that even though meat-eaters outweigh vegans, the increase in people becoming flexitarian means that a group of diners will choose their destination based on whether it can deliver to all diner needs, especially meat-free options. Flexitarians are consumers that eat mainly plant food but also some eat animal-based options.


[4] Vegans do not eat or otherwise use animal products for personal conscience reasons. See ‘Definition of veganism’ on the website of The Vegan Society. 

[5] Poore, J. & Nemecek, T., 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360 (6392), 987-992. – (Free to download)