By. Kari Hamerschlag and Christopher D. Cook


As schools and youth become leaders in greening efforts nationwide, an inspiring story from Oakland, California suggests a critical new arena where schools can make a big difference in tackling climate change: the cafeteria.


A new case study of Oakland Unified School District by Friends of the Earth shows that schools can make lunches healthier and more climate-friendly while saving money—by eating less (and better) meat and dairy, and switching to plant-centered meals.


Greening school food should be a primary ingredient in combating climate change—just as important as making schools more solar-powered and energy efficient. Research shows that meat-centered diets play a major role in rising temperatures: animal-based food production spews tons of greenhouse gas emissions and guzzles oceans of water. For example, Friends of the Earth’s analysis showed that meat-centric lunch foods, such as the all-too-common beef hot dog, are extremely carbon intensive, generating seven times the carbon footprint of a tofu & veggie rice stir-fry.


According to a 2016 Menus of Change report from the Culinary Institute and Harvard’s School of Public Health, a diet emphasizing plant foods “is the single most important contribution the food service industry can make toward environmental sustainability.”


By scaling back the meat and cheese in kids’ lunches and serving more plant-based nutritious meals, the Oakland Unified School District significantly reduced its carbon and water footprint, the Friends of the Earth study found.


Over the past two years, Oakland’s K-12 school food services cut their meals’ carbon emissions by 14 percent and reduced their water use by six percent. Meanwhile, the district saved $42,000 by cutting costs by one percent per meal, enabling them to begin purchasing small amounts of higher quality and more sustainable meat from organic, grass-fed dairy cows.


If every school district in the nation took similar action to reduce its carbon footprint from animal foods, it would slash its carbon footprint by 700 million kg CO2-eq—the amount of carbon reductions achieved by eliminating nearly 150,000 cars off the road (driving 1.6 billion fewer miles) for one year, or installing 99,000 residential solar systems.


Oakland’s Recipe for Success      

Oakland’s accomplishment is especially significant because it represents one of California’s largest school districts, with 85 schools and 37,000 students. Key to Oakland’s success was its ability to cook food from scratch in a central kitchen, along with its dedicated and well-trained food service team, which, like a growing number of school food program staff around the country, is committed to finding creative ways to improve quality while reducing environmental impact.


Two related initiatives helped lead the way. Oakland’s Lean and Green Wednesday program, modeled on Meatless Mondays, serves one scratch-cooked meatless lunch each Wednesday at all its elementary schools, including delicious popular dishes such as Vegetarian Chili, Vegetarian Nachos, and Tostadas. This was paired with California Thursdays™, a state-wide program started by the Center for Ecoliteracy that promotes the exclusive use of California-grown local and regional products in school food service one day a week.


These programs produced significant carbon reductions, not only by offering more plant-based entrée items, but also by serving meals with smaller amounts of meat, such as Bean and Beef Chili, which replaces 50 percent of the beef with legumes, like beans and lentils.


Food service directors face a complex array of demands, and serving kids healthy and nutritious food must remain their top priority. This case study demonstrates that it’s possible to increase student satisfaction and healthful veggie offerings while meeting or exceeding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meal protein requirements.


In fact, meat reduction can save institutional food service money. While Oakland reduced its meal costs one percent, the cost savings could likely have been much higher if some of their beef purchases had been replaced with legumes and other plant-based foods.  While more data is needed, evidence from other sectors shows significant and persistent cost savings. For example, an analysis of Health Care Without Harm’s Balanced Menus: Less Meat Better Meat program in four hospitals resulted in a projected food service savings of $400,000 per year.


Greening School Food—An Important Part of the Green Schools Movement

Oakland’s success adds momentum to a growing green schools movement that focuses on healthy school food. Hundreds of school districts nationwide have adopted Meatless Mondays, and sustainable food procurement standards like the Good Food Purchasing Program are emphasizing the importance of reducing animal foods as a key environmental and animal welfare objective.


Nationally, Meatless Mondays and the Humane Society have developed many scalable recipes to help school chefs prepare delicious plant-based meals and that meet USDA nutrition requirements. The Humane Society’s Food Forward program provides apps, meatless recipes, menu plans, messaging, free customized chef training, and team building to support more plant-forward menu planning.  Friends of the Earth has teamed up with the Humane Society and other organizations to create the BringFoodFoward website which offers tools, case studies, and recipes.


The Oakland school lunch story provides an inspiring model that is replicable and scalable. The evidence shows we can improve kids’ health, save money, and help stem climate change, all while increasing student satisfaction and meeting federal school meal requirements. It’s a triple win—and a replicable, scalable solution––that all school systems can embrace.


Kari Hamerschlag is deputy director for food and technology at Friends of the Earth and Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. Julian Kraus-Polk, co-author of the case study, contributed to this post.