The museum of missed opportunities

We need to eat less meat and more fruit and veg, yet how easy is this for a family on a day out? A new league table ranking children’s food and drink at the UK’s top visitor attractions is published today by the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign. As 75% of children’s lunchboxes surveyed didn’t include any veg or salad options, Rob Percival argues that visitor attractions need to do a lot more to show children that healthy, sustainable food can be a treat too. 

The Natural History Museum houses a large collection of extinct and endangered animals. Many are endangered as a result of our food system – the orangutan (habitat cleared for palm oil production), the Egyptian vulture (poisoned by diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used in livestock production), the Great Indian Bustard (critically endangered due to conversion of habitat to farm land). These animals will soon join the ranks of dodos and dinosaurs unless significant changes are made to the way we produce and eat food. Who better to lead that change than the Natural History Museum?

The Museum is one of twenty attractions surveyed as part of the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign. The campaign asks whether popular attractions and high street restaurants are providing families with a healthy choice and fresh food you can trust. The Natural History Museum scored in last place in the Out to Lunch league table.

The Museum, surely, takes strides to serve sustainable food? We asked them what steps they take, including whether they serve sustainable fish, seasonal veg, or take action on food waste – the Museum declined to comment. We searched the Museum’s website and menu for a clue, for a statement regarding sustainable food – we drew a blank. We tried again – transparency, we explained, is an important issue for parents, as attested in national surveys of parent opinions – the Museum declined to comment. Finally, we sent in secret diners.

Is the meat of the menu British? The chef showed secret diners a packed of shredded pork, sourced from Spain and Portugal. Has the pork been produced to British welfare standards? No one in the restaurant could say.

The Museum’s muted response is striking when compared with other attractions surveyed by the campaign. Wales Millennium Centre actively highlights the provenance of nine ingredients on the menu, including where beef, pork, flour and cheese come from. Titanic Belfast informs diners that meat is locally sourced, fish is sustainable, and veg is seasonal. Durham Cathedral equips its staff to be able to answer questions about the provenance and welfare of meat on the menu – all pork and poultry served by the Cathedral is British, locally sourced, higher-welfare, and free range.

The Eden Project provides an even more revealing comparison. The Eden Project scored in first place in the Out to Lunch league table, serving up sustainable fish, free range chicken, and a bundle of organic ingredients. They also use the food served in the restaurant to educate, engage, and inspire. The menu says: “From plant to plate - Our sourcing policy means that the food we serve reflects the stories we tell in our exhibits. It is responsibly sourced, fairly traded, organic, seasonal, local, and freshly made, often in front of your eyes.” By joining-the-dots between the food on the plate and the surrounding exhibits, the Eden Project creates a cohesive learning experience with food at its heart.

The Natural History Museum has both the opportunity and rationale to do the same. Exhibits throughout the Museum highlight the challenges of fish stock depletion, habitat loss, species extinction, and climate change. The Museum’s strategy says that it aims “to engage the public in debate on sustainable approaches to how we use our natural resources,” and notes that “species and ecosystems are being destroyed faster than we can describe them or understand their significance.” The primary driver of habitat loss, rainforest destruction, biodiversity loss, and species extinctions globally is, of course, food! And, more specifically, meat – unsustainably produced and consumed in excess. Surely then the Museum is taking steps to join-the-dots between the food on the plate and its exhibits by promoting a more sustainable diet that includes less (but better) meat?

There is little evidence of this. The Museum Restaurant offers only four vegetarian options, and they all include cheese. Meat options are also promoted by being positioned at the top of the menu. When secret diners asked front of house staff in the Restaurant what they would suggest would be a good vegan option, they proposed to remove the cheese from a margherita pizza. Other attractions are out-performing the Museum on this front. At mac Birmingham (an arts centre) diners are offered the choice of 11 meat-free mains, comprising more than 50% of the menu. These meals are made using a range of proteins, including nuts, chick peas, soy mince, and Quorn. Salad and meat-free options are also cheaper, encouraging diners to enjoy a heathier and more sustainable meal. 

The disparity between the Museum’s educational mission and its lack of transparency is striking, as is the Museum’s failure to take a proactive approach to promoting more sustainable diets. Five million people visit the Natural History Museum every year – it’s one of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions. Up to half a million people eat in its restaurants and cafés – that’s half a million opportunities to highlight the importance of dietary change, half a million instances in which to showcase creative and appetising meat-free mains, half a million occasions to explain how food contributes to habitat loss, species extinction, and climate change, and to inspire changes in the way people eat – half a million opportunities, missed.


Find out how other attractions fared by viewing the interactive Out to Lunch league table:

Get involved on Twitter: tell the museum of missed opportunities @NHM_London to promote #SustainableDiets for #OutToLunchUK

Rob Percival is the Soil Association’s Policy Officer for food and health

Image credit: Out to Lunch/The Soil Association

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