the puzzle of canteens with inflation

Will the price of meals in the canteen go up? In any case, this is the option that many municipalities could take for 2023. The reason is the increase in the cost of raw materials combined with a supply deficit. As a reminder, food price increases increased by 12% in October, a rate twice as fast as inflation (+6%). And the waltz of the labels is not finished because other increases are still to be expected. Which further weakens the collective catering sector, already in bad shape after the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have assessed our need to deal with this crisis: it’s an extra 45 cents per meal to deal with both food issues and inflation”, explains Marie-Cécile Rollin, director of Restau’Co, the inter-professional network of mass catering. A far from neutral figure if we consider that the cost of meals varies between 1 euro and 7 euro depending on family income.

Increase the price of meals so as not to be in the red

To avoid disaster, half of French municipalities have already asked parents to put their hands in their pockets, others have preferred to draw on their own funds. There is no doubt that this topic will be the subject of a large part of the discussions on municipal budgets for the year 2023.

Other actions have also been implemented in order not to penalize taxpayers’ budgets. Some quality products were therefore excluded from the menus, in particular organic products, which are on average more expensive than conventional products. “Even if inflation were lowest on headcount, it’s the easiest to rule out to create room for manoeuvre”explains Marie-Cécile Rollin.

Another way to save money is to fight waste. “We are reworking the offer with shorter menus, there are fewer appetizers, dishes… it also helps to combat food waste which represents an important item of expenditure”, specifies the Elior group. In 2016, Ademe estimated the cost of waste in collective catering at 27 cents per meal and up to 68 cents if indirect costs are included such as time spent in the kitchen, the waste bill… Some canteens have decided to offer menus with four rather than five components, namely a choice between the starter or the cheese.

Organic crisis: “The question disappears, when we reach self-sufficiency”

The vegetarian option, an interesting lever

Another option is to increase the offer of vegetarian dishes. Cooking without meat is generally cheaper, as long as you cook raw products. An option all the more interesting as vegetable dishes are more accepted.

“Today there is not only an increase in the price of raw materials, there is also a problem with the supply of meat, especially poultry, with bird flu. These two factors mean that we have an acceleration in the acceptance of vegetarian dishes ”, underlines Marie-Cécile Rollin.

But this solution is slow to develop. The fault lies with a staff training problem in vegetarian cooking which does not allow them to offer diversified and appetizing meals without animal proteins. “The problem is that initially there is a strong tendency to buy processed products for the vegetarian option, which cost as much as meat. But in the long run this choice is strategic. Lille, for example, saved 20 cents for each vegetarian meal offered”emphasizes Sarah Bienaimé, advocacy officer of Greenpeace.

Problem: if the vegetarian option is on the rise, it could very well collide with a new version of the 2011 decree relating to the quality of menus in school canteens, proposed by the Ministries of Agriculture, Transition, Ecology and Health in the coming months.

The objectives of EGALIM are still far from being achieved

Today it is in fact mandatory to have a vegetarian menu a week with the EGALIM law, supplemented by the possibility of offering a vegetarian option at every meal for the municipalities that wish to do so. An alternative currently being tested in more than 200 cities and towns. But now the ministries want to insert into the law the obligation to eat fish and meat for health reasons, which it would cancel in fact the offer of vegetarian dishes every day.

For Greenpeace, however, deleting the vegetarian option would be a bad idea because it is a good alternative to address both the sustainability and economic challenges and demand is high. “According to our data, vegetarian dishes are chosen 25% of the time when offered, which is huge. »

Collective catering therefore tries to juggle the will of the state to improve the quality of meals and the need not to offer overpriced dishes. A delicate situation in these times of inflation and which especially penalizes the organic sector. Laure Verdeau, director of Agence bio deplored, in an interview with The gallery recently, the lack of organic products in this area. In fact, while the law requires 50% of sustainable products of which 20% are organic, mass catering is just 6%. The path to achieving EGALIM’s objectives still seems long.

Sodexo is off to a great start

Sodexo announced its commercial results for the year on Friday 6 January. In its first quarter, i.e. between September and November 2022 and while inflation on the food basket was at its highest, the collective catering giant recorded a 20% increase in turnover to reach 6.3 billion euros. An increase explained in particular by a favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the euro. The company is doing well thanks to its market outside France, which has allowed it to pass on the costs of inflation onto its prices, unlike the French market. The group has announced organic growth targets of between 8% and 10% for 2023.