New report showcases leading strategies, policies for scaling up climate-friendly school foodStudy details the compelling climate and health benefits from 18 pioneering school districts around the country
BERKELEY, Calif. – A new, first-of-its-kind report spotlights a growing movement of pioneering school districts using their massive purchasing power to provide plant-forward, climate-friendly food that is healthier for students and the planet. The new report from Friends of the Earth, which includes four detailed case studies, builds on a 2017 analysis that showed how Oakland Unified School District reduced its carbon footprint by 14 percent and saved $42,000 over two years by serving less meat and more plant-based foods.
Based on interviews with 33 school food professionals, “Scaling up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food: Strategies for Success” provides resources and numerous examples from 18 public school districts showcasing the climate benefits and strategies that school food visionaries are successfully deploying to serve more plant-forward foods on their lunch menus.
“If we really want to solve the climate crisis, we need to address food — both what we eat and how it is produced,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Food and Agriculture at Friends of the Earth and lead author of the report. “Public schools in the United States, which serve seven billion meals annually, can have a huge impact by incorporating more climate-friendly foods. If every public school swapped out a beef burger for a veggie burger just once a month, it would save 1.4 billion pounds of CO2 a year.”
The report documents the specific climate benefits of certain recipe swaps — including how Lee County Public Schools in Florida reduced its carbon emissions footprint by 2.3 million pounds by replacing a beef dish with a soy-based meat recipe just eight times a year. Over a two-year period, this one recipe swap had the same environmental impact as not burning 1.2 million pounds of coal or 120,000 gallons of gas.
“Climate-friendly school food with plant-forward menu planning is really just a healthy food transition,” said Amy Carroll, RD, supervisor of food procurement at Lee County schools.
The report provides a comprehensive road map for boosting student participation rates and increasing appreciation of healthier, climate-friendly food. Key strategies include:
- Using fresh and local ingredients; increasing scratch and speed-scratch cooking and serving plant-forward meals in a friendly dining environment via food trucks, food courts, build-a-bowl stations, salad bars, grab-n-go carts and plant-based “pop-up restaurants.”
- Engaging students and creating opportunities for taste tests, including try-it days, recipe competitions, build-a-meal concepts, student focus groups and food festivals.
- Positive messaging that highlights the flavors and deliciousness of plant-forward items while avoiding the words “vegan” and “vegetarian.”
- Investing in staff training and better cooking facilities for scratch cooking.
- Identifying culturally appropriate recipes and employing staff ambassadors as effective and motivational spokespeople who can help instill healthy eating habits.
- Ensuring class-based and parent-focused nutrition education, including school gardens.
- Implementing creative revenue generation strategies and increasing joint procurement bids for plant-based products.
Despite the growth of climate-friendly school food, significant policy and structural barriers prevent rapid progress. The report proposes policy solutions for various levels of government that can help flip institutional incentives from an emphasis on highly processed, industrial animal products to healthy, fresh, climate-friendly, plant-forward meals:
- School boards should require a plant-based option at every meal, adopt Meatless Monday and phase out unhealthy, highly processed meat products (hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni) from school menus.
- States should include more plant-based foods on state procurement bids; enact local farm to school purchasing incentives and pass healthy, climate-friendly food legislation encouraging schools to serve daily plant-based options and non-dairy beverages to students.
- The USDA National School Lunch Program should provide more resources and support for plant-based foods by renaming its “meat/meat alternative” category “protein”; add more plant-based proteins under its current reimbursement scheme; require all schools to be “offer vs. serve” for milk and spend a larger portion of USDA Foods budget on plant-based bulk foods and meat alternatives (e.g., veggie burgers, bean burritos).
- Congress should support higher reimbursements for all meals; increase grant funding to farm to school programs and kitchen improvements (both equipment and built infrastructure) and make dairy an optional, rather than mandatory, meal component.
A copy of the report’s Executive Summary is available here.