Microsoft is a global leader in the software business. Caterpillar is world-renowned for its construction equipment. Neither company specializes in food service and so, rather than trying to staff an in-house cafeteria, these companies—and thousands of others across the country—outsource their dining services to the pros. Three major food-service management companies—Compass Group, Sodexho and Aramark—hold a sizable share of the $2.4 billion U.S. corporate-dining business. And these industry leaders are enabling (and sometimes, encouraging) employers to provide more delicious, healthful and sustainably sourced foods to millions of American employees.
Enticing Investments. A heightened attention to health alone doesn’t drive consumers to nutritious choices. “It used to be that when we offered lower-fat, lower-calorie foods, they sold poorly,” says Jenifer Bland-Campbell, R.D., senior director of nutrition program development for Aramark, which serves 1,300 corporate clients nationwide. “Now we can’t serve enough of them.” What changed? Recognizing that healthy foods won’t sell unless they taste good, food-service companies are partnering with top culinary institutions to amp up the appeal of healthy options. The chefs at Compass Group’s more than 8,000 corporate clients complete a 10-unit nutrition and healthy-cooking techniques course that the company developed with Farmingham State College. Sodexho and Aramark’s chefs go through similar programs created with the Culinary Institute of America. The focus isn’t on tinkering with employee café stand-bys (e.g., burgers and dogs) to reduce fat and calories but rather on enticing consumers with “inherently healthier ethnic cuisines, such as Pan-Asian or Mediterranean,” says Doug Warner of Aramark. “These cuisines have bold flavors that deliver big punches without the burden of heavy sauces.” Think: Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad, with green chiles and lime juice.
Stealth Health. Some of the most significant nutrition improvements happen behind the scenes. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a corporate café French fry cooked in artery-clogging trans fats. All three top food-service groups phased out the use of trans fats last year—which adds up to a huge health impact. “Simply switching the oil used to make French fries from a partially hydrogenated fryer oil to a healthier nonhydrogenated soy oil eliminated 900,000 grams of trans fat in a single week at one client’s site,” says Deanne Brandstetter, R.D., director of nutrition for Compass Group, noting that the company continues to make healthful ingredient shifts. “We now use lower-sodium canned tomatoes and soy sauce across the board, and we’re currently encouraging our suppliers to improve the whole-grain content of their breads by replacing refined white flour with a mild-tasting ‘white’ whole-wheat flour.”
Sustainable Support. Food-service groups’ purchasing power may impact the sustainable and local food movements most of all. One example is Compass Group’s recent partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which is shifting the company’s seafood purchases away from threatened species. Already, the company has stopped buying eight types of endangered fish, including Atlantic cod (replacing it with Alaskan pollock and Pacific cod). Over three years, this initiative will result in more sustainable sourcing of 1 million pounds of fish.
Food-service support of local agriculture goes a long way too. Last year, about 30 percent of one Compass Group division’s purchases came from within 150 miles of cafeterias where the food was served. Such purchasing decisions directed $55 million toward local farmers. In this situation, everyone wins: employees get fresher produce, farmers have more financial security—and we all benefit from the thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide emissions eliminated by reducing the distance food travels.