Reducing Meat and Dairy in School Lunches Save Money and the Planet, Study Finds

school lunches
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A new case study from Friends of the Earth shows that reducing meat and cheese in school lunches doesn’t just save money, it also proves an effective strategy for mitigating climate change by reducing the carbon footprint of the school.

Friends of the Earth Partnered with Oakland, California’s Unified School District for this case study, which showed that a 30 percent reduction in meat, poultry, and cheese purchases over two years shrank the district’s carbon footprint by 14 percent and saved it 42 million gallons of water annually.

The report found that if every school district in the nation took similar action, the greenhouse gas reductions would be comparable to taking 150,000 cars off the road every year.

“This is a landmark moment for school food,” said Jennifer LeBarre, executive director of nutrition services for Oakland Unified School District, in a news release. “We were so excited to see how the data showed that we could reduce our carbon and water footprint by serving healthy, delicious food – like the vegetarian tostadas with fresh made in-house salsa, that kids absolutely love – all while saving money.’’

The initiative resulted in $42,000 in savings for the school district, allowing it to spend more on healthy fruits, vegetables, and organic pastured beef from Mindful Meats, a Northern California company that sources meat from dairy cows.

A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that cattle raised for beef are ten times more damaging to the environment than dairy cows.

Several studies have shown that reducing meat intake is a better way to reduce one’s carbon footprint than giving up driving a car, including research published last March by scientists at the Oxford Martin School. Their study found that adhering to health guidelines on meat consumption could cut global food-related emissions by nearly one-third by 2050.

“While our study focused on school food,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth, “it’s clear that meat and cheese reduction is a powerful climate mitigation strategy for all restaurants and institutions that want to reduce their environmental impact.”

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.