Fighting Climate Change Through School Lunches
This study is a call for public institutions like schools to reduce the amount of meat and cheese that they serve. It emphasizes the variety of benefits that this would have for the environment and for the institutions themselves.
The study was carried out by Friends of the Earth (FOE), looking at the food provision of Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in the years 2012-2015. In 2014-2015, OUSD introduced two separate programs, which led to a reduction of animal products used on one day a week, and an increase in the amount of local and regional food used. At that time, OUSD also implemented the new fruit and vegetable requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The results were therefore due to a mixture of these programs, but are very impressive.
The document references and summarizes other existing research on the environmental, health and financial benefits of reducing the meat and cheese offerings of public institutions. It also recommends “Resources for Healthy Climate Conscious Menus.” These two aspects may make the document more practical and useful for many readers.
OUSD has 85 schools and about 37,000 students. The various programs reportedly increased student satisfaction with their meals and saved OUSD $42,000 by decreasing the amount spent per meal by 1 percent. While the financial savings were small, the authors cite evidence that suggests that savings have been greater in other, similar programs elsewhere.
More importantly, the study estimates that OUSD reduced the carbon footprint of its foodservice by 14%. This means roughly 600,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year, which is “the equivalent of driving 1.5 million miles less per year.” The programs also “reduced the water footprint by 6%… saving a total of 7 gallons per meal or a total of 42 million gallons of water per school year.”
This happened from a reduction of purchases of animal products by nearly 30%. The most significant reduction of animal products was the reduction in chicken purchases by approximately 120,000 lbs. The study notes that the environmental and financial savings may have been even higher if the use of beef had been reduced more significantly (rather than chicken).
Although the study doesn’t take this into account, this might have had a less positive effect on reducing animal suffering due to the worse suffering of chickens in intensive confinement and their small size relative to most other land animals used for food.
The authors present this as an easy and cheap intervention which is nevertheless highly effective for protecting the environment. The authors estimate that an equivalent carbon footprint reduction would have cost OUSD $2.1 million for sufficient residential solar panels, or $1.7 million for the planting of sufficient urban trees. They estimate that if every U.S. school district took up the same programs as OUSD, the environmental benefit would be similar to “driving nearly 1.6 billion fewer miles or taking 150,000 cars off the road every year.”