When we think of the ideal school meal, most of us tend to focus on nutrition. But there’s another important dimension to school food that few, if any, school nutrition directors currently take into account: the environmental impact of their menu choices.
Now, I can already hear the collective groan of any school nutrition directors reading this post: “Seriously? I’m juggling a million challenges – and you want me to add climate change to the list? Not gonna happen.”
That would be my reaction, too, but a new report out today from Friends of the Earth makes a compelling case that climate-friendly school food menus can actually save districts money while at the same time improving the nutritional profile of school meals.
The report describes a two-year pilot program in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), which comprises 85 schools and 37,000 students. Between the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 school years, OUSD reduced by 30 percent the number of meat and cheese items it served to students, instead offering more legumes and other plant-based proteins. All of the meals served met or exceeded the federal meal pattern requirements.
Because the environmental costs associated with producing animal products are so high . . .
. . . that 30 percent shift had a significant impact on OUSD’s carbon and water footprints:
The district saved $42,000 over the two-year period, and by reducing the overall amount of meat it served, OUSD was also able to source better quality beef that had been raised organically and more humanely.
I encourage any interested school nutrition directors to read the full report, which also includes a useful toolkit for creating “climate conscious” menus. Because as Friends of the Earth cautions, shifting to more plant-based proteins in school meals may soon become a necessity for districts everywhere:
With energy and water costs likely to increase over time, reducing the use of animal foods in school lunches will become even more financially compelling. The growing number of extreme weather events that heavily impact livestock production will also likely contribute to rising prices of animal products over time.
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