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Greening School Food

A Northeast Forum on Climate-Friendly School Food

Albany, NY, May 2019

On the heels of New York City’s adoption of Resolution 238, which will cut purchases of red meat by 50 percent and eliminate processed meat in its city facilities such as correctional facilities, schools and hospitals, over 70 school food representatives joined together to learn about bringing climate-friendly food to their school districts at a forum hosted by Friends of the Earth and the Tisch Food Center.

With animal production accounting for more global greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector combined, school districts are coming together to learn how to apply their purchasing power towards more plant-forward food that is healthier for students and the planet, while also being cost-effective! Over seven billion meals are served annually across K-12 schools in our nation, and what school districts serve on those trays can make a big difference.

On Thursday, May 9, 2019, leading food service directors from Northeast school districts shared best practices for making shifts toward healthy, climate-friendly, plant-based menus, and how to reduce food waste within their cafeterias.

Evidence is mounting for the benefits of a plant-based diet. In 2015, the World Health Organization processed meat as a carcinogen. It found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day (equivalent to a hot dog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. People’s protein needs can easily be met by replacing some meat with the large variety of widely available plant-based proteins and by reducing protein consumption overall. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans identifies low-meat, Mediterranean style and no-meat, vegetarian diets as healthy eating patterns. On the environmental side of the equation, the world’s top five meat and dairy companies create more emissions than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.  When schools replace meat with plant-based options, they improve student and environmental health. In fact, if every single public school swapped out a beef burger for a protein-rich veggie burger on the school lunch menu just once a month, it would save 1,407,533,657 pounds of CO2-eq, the equivalent of over 1.5 billion fewer miles driven.

Northeast school districts are helping to lead the charge for serving plant-based options. Ithaca City Schools is serving rainbow kale salad and a tofu broccoli dish that kids love. Hummus and vegetable grab & go snacks are becoming mainstream. America’s largest school district, New York City School District (NYCSD) is helping to lead an alliance of school districts across the region that are purchasing compostable lunch trays and tableware. For NYCSD alone this will divert 200 million polystyrene trays from the landfill a year. This alliance – the Urban School Food Alliance – will help bring down the price and make these products more accessible to other districts.

Districts are also learning that they can save money by serving more plant-based options. A 2017 analysis from Friends of the Earth found that Oakland Unified School District in California experienced a surplus of $42,000 — and improved student meal satisfaction — by serving healthy, plant-based food and reducing the meat and dairy on its menus by 30 percent. This district used some of their cost savings to purchase more healthy fruits, vegetables, legumes and organic beef. Other cost-effective procurement strategies are featured in the report Scaling Up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food

As student activists around the world skip school to demand action on climate change, school districts are also reporting a shift in demand from their students for more plant-based meal options. Pioneering school districts are meeting that demand by giving students healthy, and sustainable choices in the serving line.

This was the third in a series of regional forums aimed at building a national movement to leverage the immense food purchasing power of schools to measurably reduce climate emissions and generate better health outcomes for our most vulnerable population. Learn more here.