The Greening of the Games

Picking local in the produce aisle, checking for sustainability at the seafood counter, paying premium for organic milk...decisions that more and more of us make on a daily basis in our efforts to take better care of ourselves and the planet. This isn't always so easy. Things happen. A sudden shortage of organic milk, the price of sustainable salmon spikes one week, and the next thing you know your grocery cart's off kilter. Now imagine committing to those higher standards when you have to serve roughly14 million meals to spectators alone. Welcome to the other main event--the London 2012 culinary Olympics.

The Sustainability Promise

I'll admit it. Sustainability was not on my radar as I awaited seeing Phelps swim, Bolt run, and gymnasts fly in Olympics 2012. I happened upon London's pledge to go green when I delved into what Olympians were eating for my post, The Olympian's Plate. Until then, I would have assumed the chance of broad sustainability at the Games to be almost as remote as winning the gold in swimming sitting on the side of the pool.

I was wrong. Sustainability and promising to "deliver a tastier, healthier, greener Games" were at the core of London's bid to host the Games. The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOPG) made the pledge a priority. This was much bigger than when Norway introduced the concept of green into the Olympics in the Winter 1994 Games. With a promise of sustainability from pre-Games to post, from athletic venues to food service, London carved out quite a task for itself.

Working towards sustainability for the food alone was a behemoth undertaking and the Committee clearly took its mission quite seriously. Their all-hands-on-deck approach to the hard work at hand was visible from the 36-page report Feeding the Olympics - How and why the food for London 2012 should be local, organic, and ethical authored by a trio of nonprofits to the manifesto Food Vision for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games produced by the Game committee after 18 months of consultation. London obviously knew it would take a village to make greener Games a reality.


Described as both visionary and ambitious, LOCOGP wove its sustainability pledge and Sustainable Sourcing Code into their Food Vision for hosting a "tastier, healthier, greener" Olympics. Tasty was a given, with 150 different dishes on the menu for spectators, 1,300 from myriad cuisines for the athletes, and the head of catering, Jan Matthews, planning to create the atmosphere of a food festival.

The burning question for me was how they could make healthier and greener a reality with so much food to order, fast food and soda sponsors, and disposable eating utensils everywhere. In my search for answers, I discovered that they had enough breadth and depth in their planning to make a Go-Green advocate's head spin. Here are some important commitments in the greening of what will likely go on record as the "greenest Games yet."

1. Supporting Fairtrade: London is actually the world's largest Fairtrade city. Their commitment to Fairtrade, paying producers in developing countries fair prices for their goods, is evident in the Games. Part of their Vision pledged to serve Fairtrade tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, bananas, wine, and oranges. That's no small shakes when you're looking at an estimated 10 million Fairtrade bananas from the Windward Islands and South America, 14 million cups of Fairtrade coffee, and 7.5 million cups of Fairtrade tea. Those numbers reflect scores of lives that will be positively impacted by the Committee's decision to take the worldwide friendship of the Games to the next level by playing fair in purchasing.

2. Red-Tractor Assurance: Buying as close to home as possible helps reduce your carbon footprint. The British have a special Red-Tractor logo that lets buyers know that foods can be traced back to a British farm and have met strict standards of safety, animal welfare and environmental protection. The Committee's benchmark standards indicated that fruits, vegetables, salads, cereals, milk, butter, cream, British cheeses, beef, lamb, veal, mutton, and poultry for the Games were to ideally be Red-Tractor Assured. If they were not, they had to be fully traceable, which helps support sustainability. The meats in the Athletes' Village and Media Center are taken one step further and raised to the UK's leading animal welfare charity, RSPCA's standards (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) because chefs will be right there to use the entire animal.

3. Sustainable Suppliers: The Committee searched for suppliers that were sustainable in their practices, with high scores in environmental, ethical, and animal welfare standards. They then took the next step, encouraging employee training to help boost individual employability post-Games. Cadbury, a Game sponsor, is on-board with their mission, working with dairy farmers to reduce the carbon footprint of milk, a key ingredient in their luscious milk chocolate, an already Fairtrade product.

3. Organic, whenever possible: This was the Committee's benchmark standard. All of the milk served by McDonald's is organic. Although the preference for organic produce was clearly communicated pre-game, reports are in that the Organizers were unable to hit their aspirational target of all organic. This isn't surprising given the sheer volume they're serving. All organic would have been fantastic, but I'm sure their standards helped move more organic to the plates.

4. Sustainable Seafood: Food Vision mandated that all fish and seafood served at the Games must be sustainably sourced (i.e. from fishing that does not deplete resources) based on specific guidelines and sustainability lists. Even wild-caught fish falls under regulations. Ideally, all seafood was to come from a broad range of species, in order to avoid depletion of a group. One source estimates a whopping 82 tons of seafood consumed at the Games. Will all 82 tons be sustainable? The jury is still out and I don't know that anyone will ever be sure. However, I think it's safe to say that whatever the actual percentage of sustainable seafood consumed, it will be higher than it would have been without the Organizer's mission!

5. Environmentally-Friendly Packaging: LOCOPG directed that every scrap of food and beverage packaging at the Games be compostable or recyclable. The food and drink served in the Olympic Park is packaged in wrappers, cartons, and boxes made from bioplastic or other compostable materials. Even the restaurant trash is green, with bins presorted into plastic, compostable, and non-recyclable bins to help maximize an environmentally-friendly process.

6. Healthier Choices: The Committee's pledge to go healthier didn't mean taking this international group outside of reasonable comfort zones. Instead, healthier Games meant taking some simple steps:

-Offering more whole grains -Giving away free water in all venues at all times -Making lower fat, salt, and sugar options available and highlighting them -Showcasing a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables -Offering more meat and fish-free menu items -Moving towards grilling and steaming as cooking methods -Encouraging responsible eating habits by backing away from huge servings and optimizing servings, especially of meat and fish

We could all take a page from their healthier eating strategies. We don't have a scorecard yet on how green the Games actually are but I hope they hit as many targets as possible.