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Community nutrition: Under-estimated, yet powerful to improve peoples’ and the planet’s health

Just recently a friend told me that his father had to go to the hospital and they felt he was getting even more sick due to the lack of nutrients in hospital meals. True, for sick people, nutrition is important to recover. And the other day, a friend shared that she does not care so much about the high-calorie food in the kindergarten of her daughter, as they eat well at home. Not true, as the early years in life are essential for eating habits later in life.

Two examples in which our and the planet's health are affected by the sector of community nutrition. It is fascinating as it touches almost all of us every day throughout the life cycle: From eating in kindergarten, schools, universities, canteens, clinics, and homes of the elderly. In Germany, almost 17 m people (21% of the population) use the services of community nutrition every day. It is a powerful sector to improve a population's health and to reduce harmful CO2 emissions.

What is community nutrition?

Community nutrition helps individuals and groups develop healthy eating habits by providing meals to large groups of people to promote wellness and prevent disease. It focuses on all age groups, targeted range from children, students, patients, employees to older adults. In total, the turnover of community nutrition was 1,2 bn Euro in 2018 in Germany - with 587 m Euro in Health care, 206 m Euro in Education (schools, cafeterias, kindergarten) and 418 m Euro Elder care. One of the leading players in the field is the company Apetito with 692 m Euro turnover and almost 7% growth in 2018.

The future opportunity

Traditional food habits have progressively changed in the last few decades. In modern families, both parents work which leads in turn to full-time care of kids in kindergarten and schools. In Germany, we also see an increase in students at universities and persons in elderly care. A couple of decades ago the most important meal in families was lunch – today it is dinner. Nourishing our bodies throughout the day has therefore become important leading to increased demand for healthy and balanced meals during the day. Community nutrition is – as other sectors - strongly influenced by three mega-trends shaping the way we eat: Health, Personalization, and Sustainability. These trends are increasingly implemented in community nutrition: A university canteen in Bavaria offers a burger patty with only 50% meat to reduce meat consumption. 

Clean Eating
Picture (c) 2017 Lêmrich (Alina Emrich, Kien Hoang Le) / Agentur FOCUS: Foodstyling Dennis Müller ChairsFFM , 31.07.2017

Service providers have adjusted their offers accordingly: Apetito provides their meals using the “cook & freeze” technology that allows customers to prepare meals efficiently and high in nutrients. In addition, Doris Becker, nutrition scientist and head of Apetito's nutrition unit, advises institutions to ensure that - for example - an individual's intolerance is considered in the menu.

Nutrition scientists make community nutrition healthy

As community nutrition is a business and as such profit-orientated, it is essential to ensure a high-quality of the menus for the target groups. In my opinion, it is one of the most impactful achievements of the German Nutrition Society (DGE) that standards for community nutrition have been set: Based on the scientific evidence of what keeps us healthy the DGE standards define how to plan nutritious meals (for specific target groups), how to prepare these sustainably and how to market the meals.

Nutrition Influencer Dinner #3 (14 Nov 2019, Munich): Theresa Hegeschulte (Apetito), Roxanna Rokosa, Simone Frey (both Nutrition Hub), Holger Pfefferle (DGE)
Nutrition Influencer Dinner #3 (14 Nov 2019, Munich): Theresa Hegeschulte (Apetito), Roxanna Rokosa, Simone Frey (both Nutrition Hub), Holger Pfefferle (DGE) [Photo credit: Helene Schleining]

Since more than 16 years Holger Pfefferle leads the implementation of the DGE standards at institutions. His role is making sure that meals in kindergartens, schools and even in prisons are nutritious. He does so by educating kitchen teams by implementing guidelines for meal planning specifically designed for the institution. “With 17 m people daily, the sector provides the most impactful intervention to prevent nutrition-related diseases and to reduce harmful CO2 emissions,'' says Holger. “And the trends we see in nutrition - health and sustainability - support our work.”

To make community nutrition more nutritious and sustainable, technology is of great help. Start-up Delicious Data has developed a machine learning solution to provide operators of canteens with accurate demand forecasts leading to a decrease in food waste and costs. Apetito is also active to reduce food waste: "We are member of United Against Waste e.V. and implement work with our customers to implement waste measurements, "says Theresa Hegeschulte, Business Development at Apetito.

AND YET: Community nutrition is largely subsidized by employers, the health care system or the government. If we want to make meals in these institutions even more nutritious and sustainable, then we - the consumers - have to request better food and we have to convince politicians that the sector needs increased financial support. The German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture (BMEL) just announced its budget for 2020: 6,5 bn Euro - The good news: A large proportion is planned for improving meals for kids and the elderly. Thumbs up.

Talking about a plant-based diet is trendy. Talking about healthy and sustainable meals in canteens, kindergardens, schools, clinics is maybe less cool – but much more effective. 😊


This article was written by Dr. Simone K. Frey with support of Burkart Schmid, catering expert and chief editor of Germany's leading journal for community nutrition (gv-praxis).

Simone Frey, Founder and Managing Director at Nutrition Hub
Dr. Simone K. Frey, Co-Founder Nutrition Hub


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