Research Press Release

Environment: Assessing the impacts of US school lunches on climate, land and water

Communications Earth & Environment

June 24, 2022

40% of the environmental impacts of US school lunches are attributable to just 20% of the most environmentally damaging lunches, according to an article published online in Communications Earth & Environment. The study finds that the environmental impacts of the US National School Lunch Program could be reduced by serving less meat and more whole grains. The findings suggest that policy changes related to these lunches should be prioritized.

The United States National School Lunch Program provided daily lunches to nearly 40% of school children in the US in 2019, and has an annual budget of US$14 billion dollars. With its considerable budget and reach, the program affects the dietary patterns of many American children and adolescents, and could aid in addressing the environmental impacts of food systems. The program is also known to stabilise commodity prices, by creating demand, and is closely tied to US agricultural policy.

Alexandra Stern and colleagues assessed the environmental impacts of 2.2 million lunches served by 1,207 schools between 2014–2015 within the US National School Lunches Program. The environmental impacts assessed included global warming potential, land use, water consumption and quality. Examples of lunches served included peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken fajitas and pasta with salad. The authors found that low-impact lunches contained more dairy, whole grains, seafood, nuts and seeds, whereas high-impact lunches contained more fruit and fruit juice, meat and starchy vegetables. Meat products were found to contribute between 28–67% of the total environmental impacts for all impact categories.

The authors suggest that using ingredients produced using conservation methods — such as grains, nuts and seeds — in the program could create potential markets, and be beneficial for nutrition, the environment, and economic outcomes. Additionally, to ensure menu changes are well received, financial incentives and education programs — such as gardening, cooking, food systems and marketing campaigns — should be introduced.


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