News Release

New grant to fund the study of sustainable food offerings at restaurants

Penn State School of Hospitality Management faculty will lead the United States Department of Agriculture-funded project

Grant and Award Announcement

Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While ordering in a restaurant, people may not know: was the fish in their entrée caught locally or raised in a farm overseas? Did producing ice cream impact the environment more or less than making apple pie? Restaurant patrons often cannot answer these questions, but a new research project led by Amit Sharma, Edward Friedman and Stuart Mann Professor of Hospitality Management at Penn State, aims to inform diners about the health and environmental impacts of restaurant menu items.

A new $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will enable Sharma and his co-investigators to study the health consequences and environmental footprint of restaurant meals and how to best present information about those topics to customers.

People in the United States now spend more money on eating away from home — including in restaurants — than on food prepared at home, according to the USDA. This represents a significant shift away from traditional models of food consumption, according to the research team.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have recommended that restaurants offer a higher amount of healthy and environmentally sustainable menu options. These guidelines are not mandatory, however, and there are no clear recommendations on how to implement the guidelines, according to Sharma.

The researchers are investigating two main questions from the restaurants' perspective. Is it economically viable to offer a wide range of menu items that account for environmental sustainability? And if the options are available, how should restaurants share information about the health and environmental benefits with their customers?

The researchers recruited a cohort of 10 restaurants and are helping those restaurants set goals to increase offerings of sustainable and healthy food offerings. The researchers also created a series of sub-goals and will interview restaurant managers to understand the opportunities and barriers that restaurants face when offering healthy and sustainable menu items. The project aims to generate quantitative and qualitative data about factors that encourage or prevent them from offering sustainable menu items. This will help the researchers understand whether such actions impact financial performance.

“If enough consumers are motivated to select environmentally sustainable foods, then restaurants may find that there is a strong financial reason to provide these meals and information about them,” Sharma said.

The research team will also conduct a real-time choice experiment in restaurant settings to gauge customer responses to more sustainable menu options and the related information. From the customers’ perspectives, the researchers are investigating whether knowledge about the environmental impact of food choices will influence purchasing decisions.

“Among other things, we want to expose consumers to the idea of ‘true cost,’” Sharma said. “Due to government subsidies and land- and water-rights issues, the actual amount that a food should cost — in terms of social, economic and environmental impact — is often hidden from consumers.”

In a pilot project Sharma led, respondents in an online study were offered a choice between a beef burger with a higher true cost and a veggie burger with a lower true cost, but the listed price to consumers for both items was similar.   

“After learning the true cost of the items, more respondents selected the veggie burger, which had the lower true cost based on the land and water resources used to produce those burgers,” Sharma said. “This suggested that information about the increased environmental costs of beef encouraged more people to select the veggie burger.”

The eventual goal of the project is to generate recommendations for restaurants about how to incorporate environmentally sustainable foods into their menus and how to communicate information about those meals to their customers, Sharma said.

“We want to draw a map of obstacles and best practices regarding healthy and sustainable menu items,” Sharma said. “Then, that map will help us guide the industry, so that restaurants can be more sustainable in their menu offerings while helping their customers live healthier lives.”

Other collaborators on this project include Daniel Brent, associate professor of agricultural economics, sociology and education at Penn State, who will provide expertise in choice experiments and food sustainability; Niharika Sharma of Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, who will provide expertise in qualitative research methods; Kimberly Impellitteri, research and teaching labs coordinator in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development; and Ajai Ammachathram, associate professor of nutrition and health sciences at University of Nebraska – Lincoln, who will provide expertise in foodservice extension. The grant will be advised by Laure Saulais, professor of agri-food economics and consumer sciences at Université Laval, who will provide expertise in behavioral economics.

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