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How Stanford is raising the next generation of sustainable eaters

The Stanford dining team is using creatively named dishes to encourage students towards more climate-friendly choices.

Salad

Herbed Persian cucumber salad with heirloom tomatoes and roasted garlic as part of the plant-based menu in Stanford Dinning. Image courtesy of Keith Uyeda, Stanford Residential and Dining Enterprise.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Stanford University has long been famous for its top-notch education and research, an ever-sunny stunning campus and excellent athletic facilities. And if things go according to its dining team’s decarbonization plans, Stanford may also become famous for its "naughty nuts." This snack moniker exemplifies how the dining team uses intriguing and indulgent descriptions to grow student appetite for climate-friendly food. 

For years, Stanford Dining has worked behind the scenes to nourish students while cutting food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As the school ramped up its overall climate strategy and set Scope 3 targets in 2021, the efforts have gotten more formalized and better funded. The team is working towards reducing the embodied carbon emissions in its menus by 25 percent by 2030, compared to a 2019 baseline. It has yet to set a similar goal for reducing food waste emissions but is evaluating whether it met its 25 percent by 2022 food waste reduction goal. 

And the work isn’t happening in isolation. Stanford collaborates with 43 other colleges and universities in the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC) to test and refine approaches that can make healthy, sustainable and delicious food choices the norm. Collectively, the group decreased carbon emissions per pound of food purchased by 11 percent between 2019 in 2021. 

That’s an impressive feat. It motivated me to catch up with Sophie Egan, MCURC co-director and director of the Stanford Food Institute and Sustainable Food Systems, to understand what enabled those early wins and what’s next on the to-do list.  

Taking carbon off the menu

So, what’s the deal with those naughty nuts? The snack embodies a few key decarbonization strategies contributing to the 11 percent decrease. 

Replacing animal-based fats and proteins with nuts (or other plant proteins, for that matter) tends to be the healthier and more sustainable choice. According to Egan, Stanford has moved to menus in which 86 percent of all entrees are vegetarian and 64 percent vegan over the years. But making those switches only has an impact when students eat them repeatedly. 

So the team has gotten creative with descriptions. Rather than giving dishes category labels like vegan, vegetarian or plant-based, Stanford and other MCURC universities have found that using decadent and indulgent descriptions encourages the selection and consumption of plant-rich foods — names that speak to the dish’s cooking technique, provenance or flavor profile. Who’s interested in "caramelized slow-roasted carrots" or "sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots"?

But Egan raises an important caveat. "If you have great labeling, but the food doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t work," she told me. "That’s why culinary excellence and a dedication to delicious foods that are also healthy and sustainable is an unshakeable foundation." 

Other aspects to consider include the placement of dishes in buffets or on menus, their presentation and portion size. When aligned, Egan learned that these factors can "overcome previous conceptions that healthy and sustainable foods won’t taste good and be as satisfying." 

If you have great labeling, but the food doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t work.

Additionally, food that tastes and feels good won’t land in the trash — another big win for the climate and an issue Stanford thoughtfully tackles in many ways beyond taste. For example, it conducts food waste audits, helps students choose suitable portion sizes, decreases menu variety and offers samples of new items to let students try the dish before committing to a full plate they might discard. 

But even the most intricate food choice architecture and waste reduction strategies plateau at some point when it comes to achieving additional greenhouse gas reductions. That’s why supplier engagement will be Stanford’s next big frontier. Egan and her colleagues will be exploring the reductions they can achieve through different sourcing strategies and how they can leverage relationships with producers to help them implement improvements along their value chains. 

Is it enough?

When diving into Stanford Dining’s Scope 3 work, I wondered why it only set a 25 percent reduction target when the Paris Agreement’s climate goal asks for a minimum 45 percent cut by 2030. 

Egan offered three reactions to my question. First, the institute wanted to align with Stanford’s general Scope 3 program and other frameworks, such as the Cool Food Pledge. Second, because many food sustainability initiatives had been in place before the 2019 baseline year, overall reductions may extend beyond 25 percent. Third, Stanford wanted to ensure that the shorter-term targets are achievable and act as catalysts toward its net-zero by 2050 goal. 

That makes sense, but I think Stanford Dining could have handled a more ambitious target because it’s a well-resourced and experienced program that wants to occupy a leadership role. If they can’t do it, who can? 

The hesitation connects to an overarching trend at the university, extending far beyond Stanford’s dining program. How far to lean into sustainability and what trade-offs to accept was also part of last year’s heated debate about the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. There was much discussion over the school’s willingness to receive research funding from fossil fuel companies, despite having received historic founding gifts of $1.7 billion that can secure the school’s future without relying on oil money. 

Scope 3 ambition levels aside, other food organizations and businesses have much to learn from Stanford’s and MCURC’s collective lessons. Their insights on how to design and market climate-friendly foods can extend far beyond university dining environments, informing government-run and corporate cafeterias and even the language CPG companies should use for their product labels and marketing campaigns. 

Food businesses should watch out for the next generation of eaters graduating from the country’s climate-friendly campuses. Based on their college experiences, they will hopefully demand healthier and more sustainable food environments wherever they go next.

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