New data find climate-friendly, healthy meals within reach for public schools

Study shows how less meat and cheese on school food menus fights climate change and saves money 

BERKELEY, CALIF. – A new case study is the first of its kind to use life-cycle assessment data to show how meat and cheese reduction in school food is an effective strategy for both mitigating climate change and serving affordable, healthy meals. Friends of the Earth partnered with Oakland CA Unified School District to document how a 30 percent reduction in meat, poultry and cheese purchases over two years shrank the school district’s carbon footprint by 14 percent. The study found that the district saved 42 million gallons of water annually, and captured $42,000 in cost savings which was used for increased purchases of healthy fruits, vegetables, legumes and organic pastured beef. 

The case study reviewed all school food purchasing data during the 2012-13 and 2014-15 school years, applying carbon footprint data published in an articlein the Journal of Industrial Ecology by Dr. Martin Heller and G.A. Keoleian.

“This is a landmark moment for school food. We were so excited to see how the data showed that we could reduce our carbon and water footprint by serving healthy, delicious food –– like the vegetarian tostadas with fresh made in-house salsa, that kids absolutely love –– all while saving money.’’  said Jennifer LeBarre, executive director of nutrition services for Oakland Unified School District. 

Menus that emphasize less meat and more plant-based foods have become the gold standard for nutrition directors, public health experts and environmentalists seeking to combat the twin threats of diet-related diseases and climate change due to overconsumption of animal foods. The 2016 Menus of Change report from the Culinary Institute and Harvard’s School of Public Health is among expert studies that promote plant proteins as key to better health and environmental sustainability. The success of Meatless Mondays, adopted by over 200 school districts nationwide, has signaled a shift away from meat, and local, seasonal produce purchasing is on the rise. Yet, before the Friends of the Earth cooperative study, no data had been available to quantify the multiple climate, water and financial benefits of reducing meat and cheese and adopting more plant-forward menu items.

“While our study focused on school food, it’s clear that meat and cheese reduction is a powerful climate mitigation strategy for all restaurants and institutions that want to reduce their environmental impact,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth. “While cities and states are leading efforts to combat climate change, shifting institutional food purchasing has rarely been tapped as a climate mitigation strategy. We hope this report inspires more public institutions to serve less and better meat and more plant-based foods as a cost effective way to achieve both environmental and public health goals.”

The report also showed how these goals can be achieved while sourcing better quality, organic meat. The Oakland Unified School District purchased a portion of its meat from Mindful Meats, a Northern California company that sources meat from pastured, organic dairy cows. Meat that comes from dairy cows has far lower greenhouse gas emissions than beef from meat cows because the footprint is spread across both meat and dairy products. Serving smaller portions and mixing beef with legumes such as beans, which also count towards the USDA protein quota, meant not only a meat reduction, but an introduction of high-quality meat plus additional plant-based nutrition. 

With over seven billion school food meals served annually nationwide, including 800 million meals in California, this case study shows how modest reductions in purchases of animal foods implemented on the scale of school food service could translate into significant climate change and water conservation benefits for California and the nation –– while saving money and providing kids with increased access to healthy plant-based foods. The report found that if every school district in the nation took similar action, the GHG reductions would be akin to taking 150,000 cars off the road every year or installing 100,000 residential solar systems.

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Expert contacts:
Kari Hamerschlag, Friends of the Earth, (510) 978-4420, khamerschlag@foe.org
Alexandra Emmott, Farm to School Coordinator at Oakland Unified School District, (510) 434-3334, (617) 872-3479, alexandra.emmott@ousd.org

Communications contacts:
Haven Bourque, (415) 505-3473, haven@havenbmedia.com
Kate Colwell, Friends of the Earth, (202) 222-0744, kcolwell@foe.org