How Changing School Lunches Could Help the Environment

A recent Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy study found school lunch menus can have a significant impact on the environment

Prior to beginning her doctoral research, Alexandra Stern, N22, spent most of her time in schools and cafeterias. As a Nutrition and Community Outreach Coordinator for DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit dedicated to food access in Washington, D.C., she taught nutrition in schools and helped assess student approval of school lunch. The experience is what drove her to focus her Tufts dissertation on the sustainability of the U.S. National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

As a federally funded program with a $14 billion budget in 2019, NSLP provides free or low-cost nutritionally balanced meals to 40% of U.S. children each day. For schools to receive federal reimbursements they must follow specific nutrition standards including providing students with a range of options across food groups: milk, grain, fruit, vegetable, and meat or meat alternative.

“By studying the National School Lunch Program, I saw a unique opportunity to affect change,” Stern said. “The program reaches millions of Americans each day and can have a major impact on dietary behaviors and our country’s agricultural landscape.”

In her dissertation chapter, “Environmental impacts of the United States National School Lunch Program,” which was recently published in Communications Earth & Environment, Stern examines impacts of specific meal components and makes recommendations for changing school lunch regulations to reduce the environmental impacts of the NSLP.

“By using data from a huge number of actual lunches, she was able to show how both small and large changes in environmental outcomes can be achieved, while still meeting other goals for nutrition and acceptability,” Timothy Griffin, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and chair of Stern’s dissertation committee, said of her research.

A shift in school lunches could impact how students eat for the rest of their lives, and a change in diet can change the ways the environment is burdened by food systems, Stern said.

“It’s pretty well established that agriculture and the food system are major drivers of environmental degradation and climate change,” Stern said. “We need to do something to improve our food system – and one of these options for improving our food system to protect our planet, is changing our diets.”

Determining Lunch Impacts

To make recommendations on what to change to reduce impacts, Stern first had to set baselines of the current impacts.

“We can’t improve the program or say how the program’s doing, until we have these first estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing these lunches,” Stern said.

To develop the baselines, Stern used data from a national study on school lunch which captured information on 2.2 million lunches from 1,207 schools across the country serving 1,300 unique food items.

Her research examined the composition of lunches and classified them as highest impact and lowest impact when considering each meal’s impact on climate change, water consumption, land use, and eutrophication potential, or water pollution.

Some findings are expected, and others were more surprising. For instance, Stern found that animal products were major impact drivers, specifically beef and dairy, which was expected. High-impact lunches contained an ounce more beef than low impact lunches, and beef was the greatest contributor to climate change, land use and water pollution.

Dairy was the second largest contributor to environmental impacts after beef, but Stern also found that dairy was present in the lowest impact lunches when it was offered in the absence of meat.

The lowest impact lunches also included larger amounts of whole grains, seafood, and nuts and seeds than the high-impact lunches. And high-impact lunches included more fruit and fruit juices and starchy vegetables (potatoes) than the low-impact lunches.

Alexandra Stern, N22

“By studying the National School Lunch Program, I saw a unique opportunity to affect change. The program reaches millions of Americans each day and can have a major impact on dietary behaviors and our country’s agricultural landscape," said Alexandra Stern, N22. Photo: Alonso Nichols / Tufts University

Taking Steps Toward Change

Stern’s recommendations are simple: add more whole grains into meals and limit the frequency of serving beef. But Stern knows it’s not as easy as just taking certain foods off the menu.

“Let’s say we take meat off the menu,” Stern said. “That will lower greenhouse gas emissions, but will kids eat meatless meals? Are they attuned to that? Is that what they want to be eating?”

For her dissertation, Stern worked with Boston Public Schools (BPS), which as a district is an anomaly in the ways they include seafood in menus. Through a partnership with the Kendall Foundation and North Coast Seafood, BPS serves a widely unknown fish called Arcadian red fish in school lunches.

“It’s a fish that people don’t usually eat,” Stern said. “They make it into fish and chips. They crush up potato chips and cook the fish in the chips.”

BPS is an example of one school system that serves seafood, but Stern knows “seafood is not popular, it’s expensive, and there’s not a lot of access to it.”

Since schools may not have experience sourcing, cooking, or serving seafood, Stern’s research also includes ways for schools to partner with local governments and nonprofits to begin serving more sustainable lunches.

When it comes to whole grains, NSLP requires half of grains served to be considered whole grains (made up of 50% or more whole grains), a change made as part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. But there’s so much more that could be done to introduce new grains to lunches, Stern said.

“There’s a wide variety of grains out there that people have never heard of,” Stern said. “And our system right now supports us just growing a few varieties of wheat, which is not phenomenal for the environment and agriculture, and ensuring that we’re climate resistant, because with just a few varieties, if something were to happen, it becomes dangerous for our food security.”

Stern wants schools to think outside the box and consider recipes containing amaranth, spelt, einkorn, emmer, and rye.

“I think there could be some really cool ways to integrate these things into school lunches,” Stern said, schools just need support from their communities, and local and federal government to embrace change.

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