I was recently in Copenhagen, at the Nordic Organic Food Conference. This year the focus is on the progress made by the Copenhagen Municipal Authority in achieving a target of 90% of ingredients for all catered food in public kitchens to be sourced organically by 2015. I gave a speech in the opening session, framing the event and talking about the urgency of the need to switch to more sustainable food systems.

The other opening speech was by Claus Meyer, the charismatic founder of Noma, generally regarded as the world’s best restaurant. It was inspiring to hear his passionate commitment to using simple, indigenous, local ingredients whilst at the same time celebrating the pleasure principle. His attitude towards the role of exploration, discovery and joy in his work distances him from the slightly puritanical, hair-shirt atmosphere of self-denial, which perhaps has previously been associated with the ecological and organic food movements.

After the opening session we divided into workgroups, each focusing on different institutions – schools, nurseries etc. We discussed the progress made to date, which has, it should be said, been remarkable, with most institutions already reaching 75% of ingredients sourced organically, mostly sticking to the same budgets as before the initiative was introduced.

In the afternoon everyone had the opportunity to visit a catering institution on a field trip, and although tempted, I resisted the allure of a Copenhagen school in favour of a visit to Vigerslevhus, a care home/rehabilitation centre for 90 elderly patients, mostly aged-80 plus, (the oldest was 105.) Most stay around 40 days, at the end of which time some go home, others to alternative homes and some die, mainly of old age.

It has been said that a good means for assessing the degree of civilisation in a society is by assessing the way it treats its old people. I’d always rather liked this idea, especially as I seem to have moved, all too rapidly, along the conveyor belt of life towards the ‘old’ category! This theory was wonderfully illuminated during this visit, which I am sure will endure as the lasting impression of this trip to Copenhagen.

Because the running costs of care-homes are lower than hospitals, there is a good ‘business case’ for the Danish NHS to support these centres, since they fall into the category of institutions with public kitchens, and are very much part of the Copenhagen catering initiative. The main driver for the changes we saw were the targets set by the Municipality of Copenhagen that 70% of the food prepared in public kitchens should be organic by 2011, with targets of 90% by 2015. The very high standards that have been achieved at this care home however, were definitely connected to the attitude of Karen, the kitchen manager, who bought into the idea and philosophy right from the beginning.

One fascinating insight that emerged as we went around the building, was that as the project developed, the staff themselves had become increasingly motivated and convinced that they could take it further. They are currently managing to source 70% by weight of organic ingredients. They use weight rather than monetary value because it is a more accurate indicator of progress. For instance, if they sourced organic meat that might cost a lot, but still not constitute a very high percentage of the total meal ingredients. Inevitably, the organic ingredients do cost more, but it was interesting to learn that they have managed to make savings to spend more on quality ingredients by cutting down on waste.

It was particularly inspiring to visit the kitchens and watch the lunch being prepared. Everything is cooked on the premises, they only use butter and olive oil, with no margarine and no powdered ingredients. They use local, and seasonal Nordic food where possible. To do this, they follow a calendar and try to source really locally, or failing that, at least from nordic countries.

The municipality has set a daily ingredient budget of 48 Danish Kr, which I think equates to around £4.70 per patient. This includes three meals and snacks. The achievements of the care home have all been made within that standard budget, and apparently 75% of all the care homes in the Copenhagen area are now signed up to the scheme. Karen, the kitchen manager, requires the food to be cooked as close to the time when it is eaten as possible, even if this means inconvenient working hours for the staff. The whole process is about using resources differently and it does involve cultural change. For instance, when they started, there was even resistance to peeling vegetables! It is a totally integrated approach involving all the staff, of which there are 120 for 90 patients, which sounds a lot, but some of the patients require very specialist care and ‘dense’ nutrition.

They also put huge emphasis on the quality of service. When we asked some old ladies what they thought of the meals they actually applauded! Apparently, it has totally changed the culture of the kitchen staff – compared to before, when their work was centred on taking pre-prepared food out of bags, they now take enormous pride in their work and have become very good at praising each other on their successes.

When I asked Karen whether she could see any evidence that introducing this approach had resulted in health improvements, she said it was difficult to confirm this, mainly because she was working along these lines before. But she did say that there was a care home in north west Copenhagen where there had been a bigger change, from before to after, where they had seen clear improvements in nail growth, hair shine and skin tone in the residents. What was beyond doubt was that the atmosphere of the place was such, that if events in my life took a sudden turn for the worse and I had to be institutionalised, this is a place where I would be happy to live!

The high standards to which they were operating and the atmosphere of the place were truly an inspiration, which set me thinking that the chief executives of some of the UK charities working in this area and their counterparts in the NHS should really come and visit places like this.

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