Low-Carbon Meals: A Triple Win for One of California's Largest School Districts
By Kari Hamerschlag and Christopher D. Cook
What do meat-centric, cheesy-rich school lunches and climate change have in common? Both pose risks for our kids' health and our planet's future. In short, too much meat and dairy in our diets contributes to both chronic health problems and climate change.
Research shows that we cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change unless we dramatically scale back our consumption of animal foods. That's because producing meat and cheese generates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and guzzles huge amounts of water.
#Germany Bans Meat at Official Functions 2 'Set a Good Example 4 #Climate Protection' https://t.co/EjXtGTM54P @ClimateReality @climatehawk1— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1487870726.0
What if we could improve our kids' school lunches and reduce our impact on the climate at the same time?
One of California's largest school districts is doing just that, showing how we can reduce our impact on climate change and save money by serving less—and better—meat and dairy products. By trimming back the meat and cheese in kids' lunches and serving more plant-based nutritious meals, the Oakland Unified School District significantly reduced its carbon and water footprint, according to a new study by Friends of the Earth.
Over the past two years, Oakland's K-12 school food service cut their meals' carbon footprint by 14 percent and reduced its water use by 6 percent. Meanwhile, the district saved $42,000 by cutting costs per meal by one percent, enabling it to purchase better quality and more sustainable meat from organic, grass-fed retired dairy cows.
Consider one popular lunch food: a beef hot dog. Friends of the Earth's analysis found that one hot dog generates seven times the carbon footprint of a tofu-veggie rice stir-fry and more than three times that of a veggie bean tostada.
If every California K-12 school food service matched Oakland's carbon footprint reductions, they would reduce their footprint by 80 million kg of CO2 emissions—equivalent to Californians driving almost 200 million fewer miles per year.
We know kids can be picky eaters. So it's even more impressive that Oakland's effort actually increased student satisfaction with local, regional, fresh and tasty meals. Equally important, these plant-based meals met or exceeded the U.S. Department of Agriculture meal pattern requirements.
With such remarkable progress from just one school district over two years, imagine if all food-serving outlets served more plant-based foods and more sustainable, less resource-intensive animal foods. This would greatly benefit our climate future, help everyone eat healthier and reduce the risk of costly, diet related diseases associated with meat-centric diets. Currently, Americans eat 50 percent more meat than is recommended by U.S. Dietary Guidelines, while only 20 percent of us get the suggested amounts of fruits and vegetables.
Friends of the Earth
Fortunately, Oakland isn't alone. Across California and the nation, hundreds of school districts have adopted Meatless Mondays, generating important climate and water benefits by reducing demand for resource-intensive meat products.
Beyond schools, food service institutions in hospitals, prisons and elsewhere are saving money and improving health with plant-focused menus. A pilot program in four hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area (Health Care Without Harm's Balanced Menus: Less Meat Better Meat) saved the equivalent of $400,000 a year during its trial period. The Maricopa County Jail saved an estimated $817,000 in one year by switching from meat to plant-based foods.
Despite the growing trend towards serving more plant-based meals, the strategy of shifting institutional food purchasing to aid climate mitigation has rarely been tapped or quantified. We hope this report inspires more public institutions to track their animal foods purchases and serve less and better meat and more plant-based foods as a cost-effective way to achieve environmental and public health goals. We also hope policymakers will begin to consider meat reduction as a key climate mitigation strategy.
The vital role of meat reduction in mitigating climate change is well-documented in numerous peer-reviewed articles and two recent studies by the World Resources Institute and Chatham House. A 2014 climate mitigation report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that "the potential to reduce GHG emissions through reduction in consumption of meat ... (is) substantially higher than that of (any other agricultural) technical mitigation measures." The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Scientific Report reiterated the environmental benefits of less meat consumption.
According to a 2016 Menus of Change report from the Culinary Institute and Harvard's School of Public Health, a diet emphasizing plant foods "is the single most important contribution the foodservice industry can make toward environmental sustainability."
Reducing demand for resource-intensive animal foods is a relatively simple, cost neutral or even cost-saving strategy. Because animal foods production is a major part of greenhouse gas emissions, other climate mitigation measures will ultimately be ineffective if we don't dramatically reduce meat and dairy consumption. That's because the increased emissions from rising meat consumption trends would quickly wipe out the climate benefits from other mitigation strategies.
Yet another added benefit from Oakland Unified School District's approach: trimming demand for grain-fed animal products and promoting more sustainable pasture-raised meat from dairy cows also helps build healthier soils to sequester carbon, another key ingredient in fighting climate change.
Regenerative Agriculture Will Feed the World and Cool the Planet https://t.co/qWmR0ZPF79 @SoilAssociation @RootsofChange— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478818866.0
At a time when people are hungry for positive solutions, the Oakland school lunch story provides an inspiring model for a growing movement across California and the nation. The evidence shows we can improve our kids' health, save money and help the environment, all while increasing student satisfaction and meeting federal school meal requirements. This is a rare triple win that all parents can embrace.
Kari Hamerschlag is deputy director for food and technology at Friends of the Earth and Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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