Crew Welfare: Younger seafarers opting for healthier choices

To misquote a quote: “Crew are what they eat.” And younger crew, in particular, want to eat healthily and well.

Yes, we can still find seafarers who want to eat sausages and fried food every day. Yes, if you ask around you can still find an astonishing lack of understanding regarding diet and nutrition. But Christian Ioannou, Managing Director of Cyprus-based Marine Catering Training Consultancy (MCTC), says that is changing.

“When we introduce our focus on healthy, nutritious menus, there are crew who are hesitant in following particular guidelines but mostly it is the older generation,” he said. “The younger generation, especially millennials and Generation Z, are looking for something healthier onboard.

“I spoke at a conference recently and the topic was the new generations being part of the workforce. It became clear that they are looking at three priorities – work-life balance, internet access and healthy food. Many younger people are vegetarians. They need flexibility and they need connectivity. If you don’t as a ship owner provide these options, most probably you will not have any crew in a few years’ time.”

In short, he says, ship owners have no choice – provide internet access onboard and make sure your crew are properly fed.

“It is the duty of employers to make sure their crew are well fed. We have a lot of clients now, ship owners and managers, who are looking into food and getting better and better. They have changed and this trend is gathering pace.”

The logic is clear, said Mr Ioannou. A seafarer who eats a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet will be healthier and more alert. That contrasts with the shipping industry’s poor record when it comes to disease and illnesses (amongst seafarers) related to poor diet, such as diabetes and obesity.

MCTC has recently signed a deal with Columbia Shipmanagement (CSM) to be its exclusive catering management and training provider. This fits into CSM’s ‘I Care’ philosophy. “We started working with 43 ships on April 1st. Over the coming months, we will be working to have the entire fleet involved – more than 200 ships,” said Mr Ioannou.

“We at Columbia Shipmanagement are extremely pleased to be teaming up with a partner which reflects our own commitment to service of the highest quality, innovation, optimisation, tailor-made solutions and the “I Care” philosophy,” said Mark O’Neil, President, Columbia Shipmanagement.

MCTC will take responsibility for CSM’s entire food supply chain ordering process and, in parallel, will take charge of the necessary professional training and catering competency, including distance learning, onboard mentoring, the provision of weekly recipes, and onshore courses.

The process involves creating standardised weekly menus and processes, as well as training in food safety management and nutrition, and setting up working schedules.

What are the challenges at the start of such a mammoth task? There’s a lot of focus on changing hearts and minds in the early months – through regular newsletters and building a strong foundation of health and nutrition, food and management knowledge. The starting point can be a surprisingly poor understanding of basics such as calorie counting, the perils of excessive sugar and salt consumption or the challenges to our digestive systems of chemical additives frequently found in convenience foods.

When it comes to the practical realities in the galley, Mr Ioannou has one overriding drive – to get rid of ready meals and convenience foods, which are generally high in salt, sugar, fat and additives. “Through our consultancy, we change mindsets, to ensure that those responsible will be producing meals from scratch.”

MCTC provides a range of marine catering training programmes and workshops, including distance learning and guidance, onboard training and onshore courses at its training centre in Manila.

Its catering management service works with vessels to plan menus and coordinate the supply and delivery to ship of all catering provisions – with training tailored to the provisions that it knows are available.

The company works with crewing departments and management to ensure coordination with ships and their schedules; supplies of fresh produce are arranged every two to three weeks, and regular stocks of frozen and dry goods are carefully scheduled.

That said, Mr Ioannou believes that onboard chefs should be as adaptable as resourceful cooks at home making the most of what’s in the cupboard.

He recalls working as a chef in Germany, under an executive chef who did not look first at what was being cooked – but instead checked in the rubbish bin to see what had been thrown out, and ask why it hadn’t been used.

MCTC echoes that philosophy – its training focused in on the storage and rotation of food and using up the supplies onboard. A chef, he says, should be able to produce meals with whatever is available; MCTC can provide support and guidance in this because it will know what supplies are onboard.

The potential for savings is obvious. In a cost analysis report, MCTC looked at items such as bakery products, soups and dressings – comparing those cooked from scratch with those using convenience foods and ingredients. As well as containing far less sugar and calories, the ‘self-made’ versions delivered a 15% cut in costs.

There is a global trend towards healthy eating, said Mr Ioannou, and the shipping industry needs to catch up. “We are getting there; we do see there is a response from captains, who are positive and want to change. They do want to catch up with the trend towards healthier living.”