Approximately one-third of universities in Australia and New Zealand addressed at least one component of sustainable food systems within their university governance. All the universities’ governance documents considered sustainable food systems primarily through campus operations rather than other activities under a university’s remit, such as education and research. Most university governance considered only waste management (i.e. reducing landfill or reducing food waste) and/or the use of fair-trade products. These were predominantly outlined within university strategic frameworks, campus management plans and policies and described how the policy would be enforced or assessed for compliance with metrics such as KPIs or audits. Less emphasis has been given to supporting a shift towards dietary patterns (e.g. reducing consumption of red meat and substituting it for healthier plant-based foods), with only 15% of Australian and New Zealand universities currently employing such strategies. These practices were mainly included in guidelines rather than policy documents and were generally a consideration or implemented voluntarily. This review demonstrates the scope for universities to have a positive impact in the transition towards a sustainable food supply, however, it also highlights the need for governance that works towards national and international goals for healthy and sustainable food systems.
Many university policies addressed single issues, such as reducing single-use plastics, composting food scraps or using fair-trade canteen consumables and only 12.5% of universities have adopted strategies from all three key target areas identified in this review. While each of these strategies is important, they do not single-handedly support sustainable food systems and more holistic approaches are needed. Lawrence et al. (2019) argues that ‘nudges, adjustments or tweaks’ are insufficient on their own to achieve healthy, sustainable diets and food systems . This problem is not isolated to food sustainability policy specifically but has plagued sustainability policy within higher education institutions, which have traditionally focused on specific aspects of sustainability (e.g. water usage, air emissions and waste management) without considering the complexity of achieving environmental sustainability . A systematic process that considers the multi-dimensional nature of environmental sustainability is required but rarely implemented . Systems thinking that applies a “whole of university approach” to sustainability and health has been recommended to maximize universities’ capacity as agents of change [6, 13, 30]. This involves adopting sustainability goals that include the three primary domains including: sustainable university operations; sustainability curriculum and research; and participation by the university community and community outreach [6, 13, 30]. A commitment to food sustainability curriculum and research is needed but largely absent from university governance in Australia and New Zealand.
The most common goal was to reduce the environmental burden of food packaging. This mirrors research findings on Australian consumer perception on the most important interventions needed to achieve an environmentally sustainable food supply . Ninety percent of consumers ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that food manufacturers reduced food packaging is beneficial for improving the environment, while only 22% of consumers agreed that reducing meat consumption was important . This suggests many consumers are unaware of other important issues surrounding food sustainability and food systems and there has been slow uptake of sustainable practices within the community [31,32,33]. It could explain why reducing packaging is frequently a goal of university sustainability governance documents. The lack of awareness and understanding from consumers has been named as a key barrier in initiating a healthy, sustainable and safe food policy in Australia by Australian policymakers . Knowledge is a necessary (although not sufficient) component for behavior change and consumers must understand why behavior change is necessary before they can be motivated to make the required changes . Consumers also require supportive environments to help with shifting choices and behaviors regarding food . This research suggests that greater education of the public regarding environmental impacts of the food supply is a critical first step for creating more sustainable food systems.
The FAO has adopted the definition of sustainable diets that includes three pillars of sustainable food systems: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and social and cultural sustainability . The findings from this current study indicate that universities have not holistically considered sustainability, with most of the strategies only focusing on environmental protection. This is not surprising given recent research has indicated that policy actors in Australia define sustainability within a narrow scope . Some suggest that in practice it has proven difficult to assimilate the more holistic definition of sustainability due to disparate methodologies of the disciplines involved .
Food waste reduction and management
Reducing food waste
Reducing food wasted in the university setting was primarily attempted for catered events rather than for food outlets. Examples of strategies included simple measures to reduce waste, such as ensuring attendance was by RSVP for accurate catering estimates, distributing leftovers to guests and donating food to charity. Food rescue charities have become increasingly popular and are now partnering with universities in improving community engagement and redistributing good quality food . Although it is not certain what proportion of food is rescued in universities, an estimated 18,105 tons of food is rescued annually in Australia . Plate waste is also an important component of wasted food, and USA initiatives that have removed trays from cafeterias have seen a 20% food waste reduction . One governance document described employing this strategy but found it to be ineffective, attributing the lack of success to differences in foodservice and lack of buffet-style dining. Research suggests that ‘nudging’ practices to reduce food waste, such as serving smaller portions, can successfully reduce plate waste and food intake .
Food waste and food packaging disposal
University campuses used a variety of waste management programs for food waste unfit for human consumption. These included converting scraps into fertilizer, recycling food scraps through composting or using it for animal feed, demonstrating that such efforts are feasible on a university campus. As a model for informing food waste management, the Australian Government’s ‘National food waste strategy’ has partnered with an Australian university and structured the food waste policy around a hierarchical model of preferential treatment of food waste management. This model places the greatest priority on preventing waste from occurring, as this will have the greatest beneficial impact on the environment . However, if waste occurs, sending food and packaging to landfills should be a last resort as it’s a major contributor to GHGe . Alternatives to disposing of waste in landfills include recycling, recovering resources (e.g. converting food to fertilizer or digested anaerobically and injected into the gas grid) or degrading the food by anaerobic digestion through composting or worm farms.
Ethically sourced food and beverages
Around a quarter of Australian and New Zealand universities adopted fair-trade governance including stand-alone fair-trade policies. The primary aim of fair-trade products is to ensure that workers and farmers receive a fair price for their products and good working conditions [43, 44]. The rationale for including the use of fair-trade canteen consumables in environmental sustainability governance is that fair-trade products must also meet environmental protection and climate change standards [44, 45]. These standards require adopting farming practices that aim to minimize energy and greenhouse gases, protect the quality of water and soil, prohibit the use of particular harmful chemicals and genetically modified organisms, adopt best practice waste management and aim to protect biodiversity . The Fair-Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand accredits universities as a ‘Fair-Trade University’ and perhaps explains why there was greater uptake of governance has been surrounding fair-trade compared to other possible strategies. However as fair-trade certification and therefore policies only apply to canteen consumables (such as tea, coffee, and chocolate), there is room for fair-trade policies to consider the broader food system.
Sustainable food consumption
Methods to create a sustainable food supply on campus were reducing animal products; increasing the provision of vegetarian and vegan options; and preferencing the use of local, seasonal, and organic produce.
In Australia and New Zealand, ruminant meat makes a considerable contribution to agricultural GHGe . There would be health advantages to reducing red meat which is currently 24% (565 g of red meat per week) over the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommended intake to prevent bowel cancer . Red meat and processed meat make a significant contribution to colorectal cancer incidence in New Zealand . Two significant challenges to effective policies that aim to reduce meat intake, is the lack of consumer awareness regarding the benefits of replacing red meat with alternatives and the lack of willingness to reduce meat internationally including Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal and the USA [7, 30]. One university governance document described the implementation of ‘Meatless Monday’ in the cafeterias and providing vegetarian options, however due to resistance from staff and students, the policy was retracted, reflecting the degree to which consumers may be resistant to reducing meat consumption. Strategies for reducing meat consumption may need to be less restrictive to increase acceptability . Experimental evidence suggests that nudging interventions that gently encourage consumers to reduce meat may be effective . These include reducing the portion size of meat offered, providing meat alternatives along with educational materials, and changing the sensory properties of meat alternatives that may prove effective at managing demand .
Regarding organic produce, research which takes a food systems is needed to more accurately quantify sustainability outcomes . It has been suggested that a combination of food sub-systems is required to achieve the most sustainable food system. For example, industrially produced chicken leads to lower CO2 emissions than civically (i.e. household or community) produced chicken . This is contrary to the assumption that local food is always more sustainable and highlights the need for greater research on sustainable food systems to inform evidence-based policy .
Implementation and evaluation of governance
It is currently unclear whether the governance strategies identified in this study did indeed help achieve more healthy and sustainable food systems within university settings. Policies have been criticized in the past for “having no teeth”, as policies are statements of intention that may not translate into actions [31, 32]. It is recommended that strategies are evaluated to determine whether policies are being implemented as intended (process evaluation) and whether such policies are having an impact on health and environmental outcomes (impact and outcome evaluations). This is particularly important for policies that may have unintended consequences or misalignments between health and sustainability. For example, banning bottled water without the provision of alternative ways to access water may encourage consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which is undesirable given the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and obesity .
While every effort was employed to ensure a comprehensive assessment of university governance using robust search strategies, it is possible that some documents were not located during the search stage, particularly if they were not publicly available documents. It is important to note that the paper aimed to describe the content of governance documents and therefore does not attempt to capture all university initiatives to create sustainable food systems. Some initiatives and practices such as community gardens may not be captured if they were not outlined within university governance documents. Furthermore, only 19 out of 48 universities mentioned food within sustainability governance documents, however almost all of the universities had environmental sustainability governance; these policies could potentially be applied to contribute to a more sustainable food supply (e.g. sustainable procurement policies).