Sustainability

Less beef and more whole grains on school menus could reduce the environmental impact of school lunches, study says

The research analyzed 2.2 million school lunches served between 2014 and 2015.
Children eating lunch
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As sustainability becomes more important to foodservice operations across the board, a recent study found that school lunches’ environmental impact may be reduced by serving less beef and more whole grains.

The research, published in journal CommunicationsEarths and Sciences, analyzed the environmental effects of 2.2 million school lunches served at 1,207 schools between 2014 and 2015.

The lunches were categorized as low or high impact based on their ingredients’ global warming potential, land use and water consumption. Low-impact lunches contained more dairy, whole grains, seafood, nuts and seeds. High-impact lunches contained more fruit and fruit juice, meat and starchy vegetables.

“A lot of findings were consistent with previous research, that, yes, beef is a major driver of environmental impacts,” said Alexandra Stern, an author of the research.

Meat products contributed between 28-67% of the total environmental impact across all categories, according to the paper.

Stern suggested that school nutrition standards shift to reduce the frequency of beef and cheese, as well as increase the frequency of nuts, seeds, legumes and seafood. While cheese was often found in low-impact lunches, the researchers attributed that to cheese being a substitute for meat in vegetarian diets.

To ensure menu changes are well received, Stern recommended testing proposed updates before implementing them and educating students about new items.

“Making sure that kids are introduced to things and have an understanding of what they’re eating and have respect for it, I think that’s really important,” she said. “And that can come with all sorts of interventions like taste tests or cooking demonstrations.” 

Stern said the goal of her work was to create a baseline for the environmental effects of school lunches. However, school meals don’t on their own have an outsized impact on the planet, she notes: “If you compare it to the total country’s greenhouse gas emissions, children’s lunches are actually not that huge of a footprint.”

According to the research, the United States’ National School Lunch Program provided a daily lunch to approximately 40% of school children in 2019 and has an annual budget of $14 billion. Stern argued that the cultural impact of the program is more significant than its direct environmental impact.

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