Nora Stewart, Friends of the Earth
As the climate crisis intensifies, the need to make healthier and climate-friendly food choices is more urgent than ever. How? Changing what’s on school menus is a great place to start!
School food is a daily source of nourishment for more than 32 million children nationwide. Shifting school meals is a high-impact opportunity to tackle climate change and support public health. Despite pandemic challenges, there’s a growing movement of schools that are choosing to serve more plant-based and organic options. Read on for tips on how to start a climate-friendly school food program at your school.
What is Climate-Friendly School Food?
Friends of the Earth’s Climate-Friendly School Food Program defines climate-friendly food as:
- Foods with low carbon and water footprints such as plant-based (e.g., beans, lentils, soy products, nuts) and plant-forward foods (e.g., bean and turkey chili, mushroom-beef burgers, bean and cheese burritos).
- Foods produced using organic farming practices that reduce greenhouse gases (e.g., no synthetic fertilizers) and sequester carbon in the soil (e.g., cover cropping). Ideally, these are sourced from regional, small- and mid-scale diversified farms.
- Minimally packaged foods and food waste reduction strategies (e.g., serving sliced fruit, longer lunch periods, lunch after recess, nutrition education, and “share tables” to share untouched food).
The evidence is clear: climate-friendly school food is a great way to reduce your impact on climate change and benefit the health of K-12 students. School districts across the U.S are reducing their carbon footprints and enticing greater student participation by serving climate-friendly school meals such as lentil burgers, black bean gyros, vegetable chow mein, organic salads, and more!
Three Steps for Introducing Climate-Friendly School Meals
Step #1: Start by shifting your mindset. You can transform “fast-food” dining culture by implementing a “hospitality” model and mindset with your students and staff. Many people assume that kids only like fried chicken nuggets, pepperoni, and hot dogs—all highly processed meat products. However, kids can enjoy a variety of plant-based school meals.
- Get staff, student, and district support. Strong leadership and vision are critical ingredients for achieving a healthy, climate-friendly food service. Changemakers include students, parents, school board members, non-governmental organizations, and industry leaders.
- Create a friendly dining environment. Rearranging cafeterias to mimic fast casual dining environments that students experience outside of school can provide more diverse food options and create spaces that support the social atmosphere of mealtime. Ideas include incorporating “make your own plant-based bowls,” serving food from around the world, and setting up a food-court style dining experience. Meals made with fresh ingredients in a friendly environment demonstrate to students that they are important and valued. At California’s Milpitas Unified School District, students were essential in rolling out a new plant-based kiosk. Student-led environmental clubs, nutrition-focused clubs, and health groups can help bolster and promote new plant-based options, especially among their peers.
Step #2: Make a plan to change your school menu. School food shifts start with taking small steps, which add up to implementing big menu changes over time. Follow these tips to introduce more climate-friendly options at your school.
- Reduce meat portions with blended dishes. Foodservice directors report saving money by using smaller amounts of meat in recipes. Adding meat to sauces and combining it with other foods like beans, mushrooms, onions, or celery can help stretch meat and make purchasing organic meat options affordable. If your kitchen infrastructure can support it, buying raw organic meat is more affordable, fresher, and less processed than pre-cooked products.
- Buy and promote in-season local ingredients. Organic can be surprisingly affordable and cost competitive when you purchase in-season. For example, during peak growing season, San Francisco Unified School District was able to buy organic strawberries ($1.70/lb.) at a comparable price to conventional strawberries ($1.50-$2.00/lb.). Highlighting farm-fresh, local, and seasonal organic ingredients through signage and social media marketing helps build student and community trust in food service. You can start by looking at what’s local and seasonal to your area. Visit farmers markets and chat with local nonprofit groups who work with local farmers to learn about what’s in season near you.
- Buy in bulk. Purchasing organic and plant-based products in bulk can be highly cost effective and reduce wasted packaging. Purchasing dried goods and oils that have a longer shelf life and don’t require cold storage (e.g., legumes, pasta, grains, nuts, seeds, and flour) is a strategic way to plan ahead and stretch your budget. Serving organic milk in bulk can also be highly cost effective (once you purchase bulk dispensers) and can reduce food packaging and milk waste. In California, Napa and Novato Unified School Districts were able to save money by serving high-quality, local organic milk in bulk dispensers.
Step #3: Promote your climate-friendly dishes. Get students and staff excited about climate-friendly school meals through promotion, marketing, events, and taste testing.
- Taste tests are crucial. Student taste testing is, by far, the most effective way to increase participation and interest in climate-friendly meals. You can conduct taste tests by offering samples in line or by implementing “Try It Days” to introduce students and parents to new plant-based items. Competitions and food festivals are great ways to get students engaged in nutrition education and culinary education. Some school districts use student focus groups to help develop their menus. You could even host a “pop-up restaurant” once a month that features new plant-based options.
- Create compelling messaging. Messaging is of paramount importance to gain student acceptance. For plant-based entrées, it’s critical to appeal to students’ need for flavor over labeling a dish “vegetarian” or “vegan.” San Luis Coastal Unified School District partnered with Friends of the Earth to create posters and postcards that highlighted the carbon-footprint savings and environmental benefits of their Thai Basil Lentil Burger. Marketing materials are available to download at Healthy Kids, Happy Planet, and Meatless Monday. Additionally, get teachers and foodservice staff to be champions for climate-friendly meals by investing in training and discussing the importance of climate-friendly menu shifts.
Want to learn more? Friends of the Earth’s Climate-Friendly School Food Program provides support and technical assistance to help school districts offer more climate-friendly meal options. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up for Friends of the Earth’s Climate-Friendly School Food quarterly newsletter to receive information and resources to promote climate-friendly school food.
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