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Catering for green values

Greening vocational courses equips students to carry good environmental practice into working life. Shirley Ali Khan reports.

Students on catering courses at Hopwood Hall College, Greater Manchester, and their peers from the Carl Severing Kollegschule in Germany are learning to cook greens and cook "green". It is all part of the college's response to the Department for Education's Environmental Responsibility (Toyne) report which emphasises the importance of "greening" vocational courses.

The students are planning a "Right Bite" day, when they will take over the college refectory and provide "environment friendly" meals for all. Graphic design students from the college are producing the publicity material, and science students will monitor the environmental and health aspects of food preparation on the day, making it an international and an inter-disciplinary team effort.

Planning an environment friendly menu is not an easy task. The students have to score their ingredients against a set of criteria. Considerations include production methods, distance transported, type of storage and associated waste. Information is not always readily available and neither are "friendly" alternatives to "unfriendly" products. The students soon learn that the application of sustainable principles is much more demanding than a detached study of environmental issues.

A key question is whether the Right Bite day will influence routine practice of the college's catering facility. The Toyne report puts great emphasis on the need for colleges to practice what they teach. Changing practice to take account of sustainable development principles requires determination and a willingness to play a part in creating new systems within the college and if necessary within the community.

The Hendrix Food Project is an excellent example of what can be achieved. Four students from the Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, obtained a grant to look into the origins of foods that were served in the college cafeteria. They found that only 6 per cent of cafeteria food came from Arkansas, a state with a strong agricultural economy. Meat was bought from Texas, even though beef cattle grazed within sight of the college. Vegetables and fruit, which was mainly frozen, canned or packed in chemical preservatives to maintain a long shelf-life, came from California, 2,000 miles away.

As a result of the research findings, a project was set up in 1989 to increase the use of locally produced foods in the college cafeteria and to educate students about the benefits of nutritious foods. By 1992 the college was buying 30 per cent of its produce locally. Since then, new local businesses have been formed and new customers for local produce have emerged, including the University of Arkansas and the Conway Regional Hospital. As the local market increases and diversifies other business ventures such as a local food brokerage centre with storage facilities will become viable. The college aims to buy 50 per cent of its food locally by the end of this year.

Back at Hopwood Hall the catering students are planning their own community initiative to "green" the local chippy - the sort of small enterprise which all other business environment initiatives have failed to reach. They have developed a very simple audit which will be used to raise awareness of the responsibilities associated with small catering establishments and stimulate action.

They also visit the local abbattoir as part of a series of visits and presentations to help them to make up their own minds about their duties and obligations to other species. Passionate discussions often continue outside the lecture room. And it's not just a personal matter - with four million vegetarians in the UK and around 2,000 people converting every week, there are implications for the catering industry.

Detailed thinking about ethical duties is complemented by attention to the practical detail of good "kitchen-keeping" including energy efficiency, water conservation and the recycling and composting of waste.

Enabling environmentally responsible citizenship, which is what curriculum "greening" is all about, is clearly more complicated and challenging than cooking greens. It is not just a question of understanding sustainable development principles and theorising about appropriate actions, it is about action for sustainability. Where appropriate action is made impossible by flawed systems, being environmentally responsible means playing a part in changing systems - as happened in Arkansas.

Students need a kit bag of knowledge and skills which will help them to actively and creatively participate in shaping a more sustainable future. In some vocational areas the curriculum changes necessary are substantial and the Hopwood Hall College initiatives would not have been possible without European Social Fund money. It is to be hoped that the current revived interest in the implementation of the Toyne report recommendations within a number of Government departments will result in some strategic support for curriculum "greening" in colleges.

* Ali Khan S, 1992, Colleges Going Green, Further Education Unit, plus Ali Khan S, 1995 Colleges going Greener, Further Education Development Agency (to be launched in the autumn)

Shirley Ali Khan, is an Associate of Forum for the Future

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