How school lunch menus can help fight climate change
4 min read
fairly difficult
On key ingredients, school lunches are out of step with the latest nutrition and environmental science, a new study finds.
Every industry can be part of the solution — or part of the ongoing problem.

Outside of Michelin-starred restaurants, few menus are as hotly debated as public school lunches.

In the US, school lunches have to adhere to nutrition standards mandated by Congress. These were updated in 2010 for the first time since the 1940s, and again in 2015—each time under intense pressure from agriculture industry groups that pushed for menus giving a starring role to meat, dairy, fruit, and processed grains, and bit parts to vegetables and whole grains. They're a lucrative target: Nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program shape a $14 billion market across nearly 100,000 schools.

But those menus may be misaligned with the latest nutritional science, according to a new study—and have a much bigger environmental impact than they should.

In the journal Health Affairs, nutritionists at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health compared public data on school lunch menus to the diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission Report. The global food system accounts for about one-quarter of total carbon emissions, and the definitive 2019 report, peer-reviewed by leading global health researchers, aimed to design a 'planetary health' diet to maximize nutritional value while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and land and water consumption—all at the lowest possible cost.

You're probably familiar with some of the central tenets of the planetary health diet: Eat fewer animal products,…
Tim McDonnell
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