FootprintFeature: Salt, Sugar, Sweat

WITH MASSIVE sponsorship from fast food companies and a veil of secrecy covering alternative catering, London 2012 was quickly titled ‘the junk food Olympics’. But was that an accurate moniker, and could it actually have a positive outcome?


Long billed as the “largest peacetime catering operation in the world”, the Olympic Games saw over 14 million meals served to hungry spectators, athletes and journalists across 40 venues around London.


In keeping with LOCOG’s aspirations for the “greenest Games ever”, this not- insignificant task saw tremendous drives towards sustainable catering: eggs were free range and milk organic across the board, meat was Red Tractor assured and fish, remarkably, was sustainably sourced as standard.


These achievements – executed on such an enormous scale – certainly suggest that a positive sustainable food legacy
will be left behind, and can be attributed in many ways to LOCOG’s Food Vision document, which clearly laid out tangible sustainability benchmarks and standards for caterers. (Indeed, the success with fish pushes London ever closer to becoming a sustainable fish city).


However, as successful as this plan was, it was undermined by a proverbial elephant in the room; an elephant chomping on burgers and chocolate and slurping soda.


Many have rightly questioned the appropriateness of companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola sponsoring a world-captivating event concerned with fitness and health. In the run-up to the Games the company behind the golden arches proudly unveiled its Olympic Park restaurant – capable of seating 1,500 customers – and claimed that it would be serving 50,000 Big Macs throughout the proceedings.


Coca-Cola, meanwhile, estimated it would shift 23m units, and Cadbury – the official “treat provider” of the Games – claimed that its temporary inflatable Olympic House, packed full of free chocolate samples, would attract 50,000 visitors.


These three sponsors were responsible for literally millions of additional calories consumed during the event, and health organisations, medical professionals, parents and cynics were not happy about it. According to a Which? online survey, nearly two-thirds of people interviewed believed that “it undermines the healthy ethos of the Olympics to be sponsored by companies that are perceived to make mainly unhealthy food and drink”.


Granted, fast food and soft drinks pose no health threat when consumed as part of an otherwise healthy, balanced diet. Both McDonald’s and Coca-Cola offer some “healthy” choices (the former tweets incessantly about its sub- 400 calorie offerings) and their Olympic menus did carry GDA information, but as Tim Lang, a food policy professor at City University, observes: “The ubiquity of the offer and domination of the offer around the Olympics is troubling and sends out very contradictory messages.”


“Domination” is the key word here. Cadbury negotiated an exclusivity deal that meant other suppliers within the Olympic Park were unable to offer healthier alternatives to its products. Coca-Cola had the monopoly on all non-alcoholic drinks served at Olympic venues. And McDonald’s signed a deal that gave it complete catering rights. This would be a tremendous logistical undertaking, of course, so the company settled for a 10% stake in catering provision, with the caveat that the 800 other food outlets kept schtum about their own efforts during the Games.


Companies such as Sodexo, Compass Group and Eden Catering all played their part in delivering those 14 million meals, and perhaps could have played a greater role in dispelling the “junk food Olympics” label had they been able to talk about their work. Instead, inquiries were directed to LOCOG, and subsequently to the Food Vision document with its vague nods towards “making sure that lower salt, fat and sugar options are available” and, ironically, “helping people understand what makes a balanced diet”.


BaxterStorey, given the task of catering for the media centre and feeding 25,000 journalists 24 hours a day, did reveal some of its strategies, though. An arduous nine-day tasting session saw more than 1,000 dishes rigorously tested for taste, sustainability and nutritional value, resulting in a menu of more than 450 freshly prepared options to suit customers from around the world, each meal carrying information on guideline daily amounts.


“We’re providing sustainable, locally sourced and nutritionally balanced food, freshly prepared by highly trained chefs,” says BaxterStorey’s CEO, Noel Mahony. “But that’s what we do every day anyway.” The company provided delis, barbecue areas, coffee bars and two restaurants with combined seating for 4,700 diners, dwarfing McDonald’s offering.


No doubt other catering companies have similar stories to tell but, without a platform to do so, McDonald’s, Coca- Cola and Cadbury reigned supreme in the public perception of Olympic catering – a paradigm which was not helped by the high prices of alternatives; £8.40 for a curry and rice surely made a Big Mac meal at half the price a more attractive choice for visitors stripped of cash when buying tickets.


The London Assembly has since called for a ban on fast food sponsors within the Olympic movement, and even the International Olympics Committee (IOC) president, Jacques Rogge, admitted there is a “question mark” over future sponsorship from McDonald’s (despite the extension of the deal until 2020). But should these companies really be so vilified? After all, it’s the IOC which dictates the secrecy surrounding the sponsorship deals and, as the nutritionist Amanda Ursell notes, these companies are very well-placed to influence positive change.


“McDonald’s in particular has made huge strides in the last decade to improve the quality of its food by sourcing in a more responsible manner, and it does do some promotion around fruit and milk options – it’s very good at making things look attractive and appealing in that way,” she says.


“What’s vital to keep in mind, though, is that in order to create a change in the way this country views diet, nutrition and obesity, companies like McDonald’s need to create a change, and in my view, that’s happening, albeit slowly. Having them at the Olympics at least stimulates debate and opinion, which will push this along.”


Like the Games themselves, where some fail, others will succeed. In light of Food Vision’s nutritional shortcomings a new initiative – the Healthier Catering Commitment – has come to light, championed by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Food outlets signing up to the scheme commit themselves to reducing saturated fat, sugar and salt
in their meals, and it’s hoped that the guidelines will be widely adopted in time for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.


“We live in a world with a distorted food culture,” says Lang. “And the Olympics has become a festival of the super-fat watching the super-fit. We’ve only recently started having these important conversations, but at least we’re having them now.”


Perhaps, then, a positive food legacy will come out of London 2012, albeit one born of discontent.