How Chartwells Higher Ed's climate-labeling initiative is helping college campuses meet sustainability goals

The program aims to empower diners to make informed choices about the food they consume.
Asparagus with a climate label
The program examines the social and environmental impacts of each ingredient in a recipe. / Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

As demand for more sustainable options grows, Chartwells Higher Education is helping the campuses where it runs foodservice meet the call by adding labels to menus and other signage that highlight the environmental impact of what’s offered.

The foodservice provider teamed up with How Good, an independent researcher, to launch its climate-labeling program at college campuses across the country last fall.

The goal of the initiative is to provide diners with the information needed to make informed decisions, said Monalisa Prasad, national director of sustainability at Chartwells Higher Ed.  

“It also offers us as foodservice professionals and culinarians [the opportunity] to innovate and create recipes, keeping in mind climate and the planet,” she said.

How it works

A lot of thought went into choosing a company to partner with on this, Prasad said. The team wanted to ensure that the system used would be easily understood by diners, and it wanted to account for social factors, such as working conditions and animal welfare, rather than just environmental ones.

How Good draws from over 600 independent data sources, including the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Prasad. Its sustainability database contains more than one million products spanning 33,000 ingredients, according to the researcher’s website.

Ingredients are evaluated using at eight metrics: greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity impact, processing impact, water use, land use, labor risks, soil health and animal welfare. The system then calculates an environmental and social rating—good, great or best.

If a menu item receives a good rating, that means that recipe’s social and environmental impact is better than 75% of How Good's rated recipes. A great rating means it’s better than 85%, and a best rating means better than 95%, according to Prasad.

“It was very important for us to keep it very simple—that good, great, best kind of level and rating system,” she said. “I think it’s more absorbed, and it’s well absorbed by Gen Z or anybody, for that matter.”

The program helps the team determine which ingredients are more climate-friendly, which gives them the data needed to adjust recipes.

“It really helps us, using their software, to see which ingredients are better. For example, again, [an] oat milk bubble tea recipe—typically, what is used is whole milk or half and half,” Prasad said. “So, we quickly saw that if you just put oat milk in it and substitute it, it actually takes your recipe rating from good to best.”

Responding to consumer shifts

Requests for more sustainable options comes from both consumers and campuses themselves, the latter of which are likely to have sustainability or carbon-emissions commitments to meet in the coming years.

Seventy-five percent of Gen Z are influenced by sustainability and environmental impact when they’re making those purchasing decisions,” Prasad said. “So that was definitely taken into consideration.”

According to a study by researcher Morning Consult, Gen Zers are nearly twice as likely as baby boomers to say climate change has a major impact on their behaviors.

In addition, Prasad said that stakeholders had even begun asking for a climate labeling program, specifically.

“If you look at Europe, Europe was way ahead. And they were obviously comparing that as well,” she said. “So, they’re like, ‘Well, if they can see what their impact is, I think we should see it as well.”

The results so far

Feedback on the initiative has been very positive, according to Prasad: “I was talking to a client not too long ago, last week, and she was thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. … She’s starting to see it become such a game changer and a unique kind of point for the university.”

A recent study, led by a researcher at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that climate impact labels on a sample fast-food menu influenced participants’ food choices, steering them toward items that have a lower climate impact.

Prasad said she believes that so far, the Chartwells initiative has likewise encouraged more climate-friendly options.

“I’m actually looking and starting to look at data and how purchasing was impacted. Did we have more plant-based spend than beef spend, for example. And how much of it did we menu?" she said, adding that she “can see an upward and positive trend, for sure. “

Looking forward

About 700 recipes were tested in the initiative’s pilot phase, but expansion is in the works as more recipes are tested and tweaked.

In addition, the team aims to increase its percentage of best-rated recipes. Chartwells Higher Ed has also set a goal to increase its percentage of climate-labeled recipes year over year, Prasad said, but did not disclose what that goal is.

In addition, she believes that climate labeling will become more common in the foodservice industry.

“It’s just like the straw movement,” Prasad said. “When we started off, so many years ago now, to eliminate and ban straws, it took time. But look at it now. We do not see as many straws. Same thing with plastic bags. It took its course; it had that massive impact. And now, people bring their own bags.”



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