New York City Students Are Taking On Climate Change, Starting in the Lunchroom

This fall, a Meatless Mondays initiative will go into effect across all 1,800 NYC public schools.

School Chancellor Richard Carranza eats a vegetarian lunch at P.S. 130 in Brooklyn.

Credit: MediaPunch via Associated Press

Last spring, the lunch menus on Mondays at 15 Brooklyn public schools looked a little different. Children chose from entrees and sides that included vegetarian tacos, veggie chili, sweet plantains, and grilled cheese sandwiches. There was no meat in sight.

The students were participating in a pilot program run by the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services. And after receiving student feedback and evaluating participation rates, the city deemed the program a success. The kids enjoyed the vegetarian menu, leading the agency to expand the initiative—called Jumpstart Monday at the time—to more schools in the district this past school year. And in March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the program, renamed Meatless Mondays, would go into effect citywide come this fall.

The initiative aims to help reduce the carbon footprint of the country’s largest school district, which serves 981,000 meals a day. “Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers' health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said the mayor during a press conference. “We're expanding [the program] to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The move falls in line with New York City’s Green New Deal, the De Blasio administration’s plan for fighting global warming on all fronts, from vehicle emissions to building efficiency to what’s on the cafeteria tray. Among other goals outlined in the plan, the city aims to cut its purchase of beef in half by 2040.

The Diet-Climate Connection

We often overlook just how much our food choices can affect climate change. “Agriculture has flown under the radar,” says Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at NRDC. Livestock emissions produce about 15 percent of global greenhouse gases. “It’s a huge part of the problem,” she says.

Animals raised for meat or dairy products release large amounts of methane, a climate change pollutant 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. On top of that, livestock require enormous amounts of animal feed, which takes a lot of resources (land, water, fuel, plus pesticides and fertilizer) to grow. Also the manure produced by the cows on concentrated feedlots can release methane and nitrogen oxides.

As a result, lowering demand for carbon-intensive foods like beef is a powerful way for consumers to fight climate change. “If all Americans cut a burger from their diet each week, that would be like taking 10 million cars off the road for one year,” Bergen says. (Specifically, achieving this reduction in emissions would require cutting a quarter-pound of beef out of our weekly diets for a year.)

She believes that New York City’s lunchroom initiative will reap benefits for health and the climate. “If we educate a new generation of Americans on better ways to eat for themselves and the planet, it will have a major impact.”

And this shift toward plant-based diets could very well spread beyond school cafeterias. NRDC, for instance, is encouraging food service giants like Compass, Sodexo, and Aramark, (which serve up meals at stadiums, universities, and hospitals) to be part of the solution by responding to trends among consumers who want to eat more plants. For such large companies, buying about one-third less red meat each year than they currently do would be the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road over 10 years, she notes. Change is definitely afoot. Even big chains like Burger King are selling veggie burgers. The plant-based Impossible Whopper made its debut in St. Louis in March and is now on its way to more cities.

The New York City government is also thinking of bringing more plant-based foods to other facilities it runs. “The government feeds people in jails, hospitals, homeless shelters, day care centers. We’re taking a closer look at what we’re feeding people,” says Rachel Atcheson, a spokesperson for the office of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. (Adams was the official who initiated the school-based Meatless Mondays pilot, inspired by the changes he made to his own diet after a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.)

A Push From Home

New York City parents have been pushing for healthier school lunches for a long time. Their efforts led to the introduction of an alternative menu, featuring foods like roasted chickpea tagine and zucchini parmesan, in select schools in 2009. (Any school can request it, Atcheson notes.) Currently five schools—two in Brooklyn, one in Queens, and one in Manhattan—offer this option several days a week.

One of the parents behind this initiative was Amie Hamlin, executive director of the Coalition for Healthy School Food (CHSF), which offers nutrition workshops, holds conferences, presents in schools, and works with chefs to develop vegan menus. Hamlin’s journey began when she joined the PTA at her stepson’s school to get vegan options on the menu. The effort succeeded, paving the way for an official partnership between CHSF and the Office of Food and Nutrition Services in 2008.

CHSF has discovered that if the option exists, most children will give it a try. “A vast majority of kids like vegan options in taste-testing and in-class programs,” says Hamlin, adding that kids have been choosing more and more of these foods in the lunch line.

The National Trend

Major school districts around the country are participating in similar initiatives. The Baltimore City public school system started meatless Mondays in 2009, while Los Angeles Unified Schools, the second-largest district in the country, has served meatless meals on Mondays since 2013. In Miami-Dade County public schools, veggie options on the menu are marked with Lean and Green branding.

Margaret Brown, a senior attorney at NRDC, sees these big city programs as important models for other cities. “When New York City or L.A. does something with school meals, it’s very visible to other districts and the food industry because it’s on such a massive scale,” she says. “It can have a real impact in these communities and begin to change school meals around the country.” But to succeed, a meatless program needs to be planned with broad student and parent input, she adds. This is especially important in the menu development phase, she notes, so kids will eat what’s served. “In New York City, huge numbers of low-income kids are dependent on school meals to get enough food each day, so making sure they eat is priority number one,” Brown says.

Some colleges, such as the University of Connecticut and the University of California, Los Angeles, are also jumping on board by offering students blended burgers, which contain a mixture of vegetarian ingredients and beef.

“I see it happening everywhere,” Hamlin says of the trend toward reducing meat consumption and adding more plant-based foods into daily diets. “The growth is happening because people want it and are asking for it. That alone is a good indicator.”

Plant Forward

Meat, of course, isn’t the only food in schools that comes with climate consequences. For example, dairy products like cow’s milk and cheese have a “high climate impact,” Bergen says.

Hamlin and other advocates agree that the current policy could go farther so the vegetarian options don’t too often end up being cheese-based. “A vast majority of Meatless Mondays are that,” Hamlin says. “We are advocating for them to include beans, tofu, or lentil options. We just want healthy plant-based options.”

Bigger changes could come with a push from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, updates dietary guidelines every five years and issues recommendations for the National School Lunch Program. The next update is due in 2021, and public health and climate advocates hope to take that opportunity to encourage a shift toward more plant-based foods nationwide. And why not? Healthier kids and less pollution will bring brighter futures all around.

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