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How school food can serve a climate solution

Climate is on the menu

women handing child food

A new bill aims to fund plant-based entrée options for students that are healthier and more climate-friendly.

Public procurement has played an essential role in bringing climate technologies such as wind and solar from niche to mainstream. It also could be key to scaling the plant-based ecosystem, lowering the carbon footprint of food production. Schools might be the public infrastructure soon kicking off this development. 

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and Meatless Monday have been advocating for a shift to sustainable and healthy cafeteria food for years. Now, U.S. representatives Nydia Velázquez and Jamaal Bowman from New York have introduced the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act. The new bill — endorsed by over 100 environmental and social justice groups — aims to fund plant-based entrée options for students that are healthier, more climate-friendly and more culturally appropriate than the current choices. 

Impossible Foods, a plant-based meat company, is also betting on a new generation of sustainable eaters. It has recently secured Child Nutrition Labels for its burger, a milestone for entering the K-12 school food market. A closer look at the bill indicates its potential impact on carbon emissions, food justice and plant-based supply chains.

Growing a generation of sustainable eaters

"At the same time as we invest urgently in the transition to renewable energy, we must build sustainable food systems at every level of our society — and our public education system can lead the way," Bowman said in a press release in the bill’s announcement. The bill would create a voluntary grant program for school districts to help them address major challenges related to offering plant-based meals including the lack of culinary training, a dearth of supplier partnerships, higher procurement and labor costs and the need for marketing and student engagement.

The pilot grant program aims to make $10 million available to schools over three years, prioritizing schools that serve a high proportion of free or reduced-price lunches. It also will give preferred treatment to schools planning to collaborate with non-profits, community partners and agricultural producer groups, offer related curricular activities and develop a plan for culturally appropriate meals. In addition, the bill encourages schools to procure plant-based foods from beginning, veteran, socially disadvantaged or local farmers. While this social justice focus is applaudable, I fear that schools won’t have the personnel resources to develop such intricate meal plans and sourcing programs. The bill might be trying to kill too many birds with one stone. 

A simple focus on plant-based ingredients rather than trying to set up new supply chains, meal plans and curricula already would be powerful. A recent analysis by Friends of the Earth outlined the scope of the opportunity from a climate perspective: The meat and cheese served as part of school lunches in California make up 95 percent of the carbon footprint of school meals. A similar story likely can be told across the country. Switching from cheeseburgers, hot dogs and pepperoni pizzas to bean chilis, veggie pasta and falafel wraps just a few times per week can make a big difference. The Oakland Unified School District made such changes over 2014-2015 and accomplished a 14 percent reduction of its carbon footprint while saving $42,000 and increasing student satisfaction.

graph of meat and cheese

Food as equity and education 

Plant-based school meals also could make cafeterias healthier and more inclusive. Eating well at school is especially important for the disproportionate number of students of color who rely on school breakfast and lunch for half of their daily calories. But the nutrition guidelines don’t serve the needs of some of its most vulnerable patrons for whom school meals can be the most important source of nutrition. For example, the guidelines require cow’s milk to be part of school meals and many meals are cheese heavy despite 50 to 95 percent of people of color suffering from lactose intolerance or maldigestion

The bill might be trying to kill too many birds with one stone.

School meals also offer an educational opportunity to engage youth on the climate crisis. In the spring, Impossible Foods published the results of an independent study that surveyed 1,200 nationally representative kids ages 5 to18. Similar to adult statistics, a much smaller number of kids view diet shifts as a climate solution, compared to tackling deforestation, transportation, energy or waste. At the same time, 62 percent say they mostly learn about the climate crisis in school. School cafeterias could not only be an important learning center but also help kids form sustainable eating patterns at an early age — something much harder to change later in life. 

Scaling plant-based supply chains

American schools serve over 7 billion meals per year. Merely choosing a plant-based option once a week equates to 625 million meals per year. This would create the kind of reliable and consistent demand that could de-risk investments and give plant-based supply chains an unprecedented boost. It could curb cost, diversify products and improve quality and taste.

This doesn’t only apply to alternative meat and dairy products which are more environmentally friendly but not necessarily healthier. More important, it could help scale a large ecosystem of companies of all sizes that grow, pack, process and distribute plant-based whole foods. U.S. pulse producers may reap the largest rewards. Many other institutional foodservice providers such as universities, hospitals and prisons could piggyback on this new marketplace.

The $18.8 billion in taxpayer funding school food gets each year should be aligned with the Biden administration’s climate, health and equity goals, fueling the race to net-zero in the food and agriculture industry that has just begun. Six other representatives already have joined Velázquez and Bowman in co-sponsoring the bill, but Republican support is lacking. 

Chloe Waterman, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, still thinks the bill, or at least some of its components, has a good chance of getting included in this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which comes up about every five years in Congress. "It can often take several 'tries' to establish a new pilot program like this, but given Congress’s focus on climate change, addressing hunger and advancing racial equity, we are hopeful that the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act can advance in some form this Congress," she told me in an email. 

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