How Sustainable is Your School Food? Insights

How Sustainable is Your School Food?

Our food system – the way we currently produce and consume food – isn’t sustainable. The food supply chain is responsible for one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Changing the food system is no easy task, but it is an essential one, and schools can play an important part.

At schools every day, tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff eat lunches in school canteens. While they have some choice about what food they eat, most of the decision-making happens behind the scenes – it is the food service providers who decide what options are available on the menu and how and where the food is sourced.

Sustainable school food is one of the five focus areas of TASS’s advocacy work. By working with students and school catering companies to review menus through a sustainability lens and by encouraging trials of more sustainable menu options, TASS aims to show that sustainable food is a popular option with students and to accelerate the shift to more environmentally-friendly school food.

What is a sustainable diet?

A sustainable diet is one that provides enough nutritious food for the world’s projected 10 billion people in 2050 and can be produced within the planet’s boundaries for greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater, phosphorous and nitrogen, biodiversity loss and land use change. What would such a diet look like?

This was the question the EAT Lancet Commission set out to address in 2018. The Commission is an international group of scientists with expertise in human health, agriculture, food systems, environmental sustainability and food policy. According to the Commission, global food production today constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries.

Their proposed planetary health diet consists mostly of whole grains, plant-based protein sources, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables, with limited amounts of animal protein, mostly fish and chicken. It might be described as a ‘flexitarian’ diet and in that sense it is likely to be more realistic than proposing people adopt a fully vegetarian or vegan diet especially taking account of differences in cultures and resources around the world.

TASS worked with a group of students at two schools and their school lunch caterers to help them find out how sustainable their school lunch is in comparison to the EAT Lancet Planetary health diet. The students requested data from their school food caterers, analyzed it, and compared it as per the graph shown below:


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Meat-alternatives are trending

The notion that environmentally friendly diets are all about lentils, tofu and boiled vegetables is so last century. Plant-based proteins like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Gardein and Hong Kong-based Omni Foods, are fast becoming mainstream with Gen Z among the major adopters.

Peggy Chan, a Hong Kong celebrity chef with expertise in vegetarian, vegan and plant-focused food, and her organisation, Grassroots Initiatives, have partnered with TASS and school food service providers to showcase sustainable, healthy, and delicious meals for students that cost the same, or less, than the traditional meals already being served in canteens.

The power of sustainable school lunches

The EAT Lancet commission notes that a radical transformation of our food system including a major shift in our diets is needed if the world is to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the goals of the Paris Agreement. Schools can contribute to this essential transformation by requiring their food service providers to offer a variety of tasty, low-carbon options on the school lunch menu.

To achieve this, TASS co-hosted the first student-led Sustainable School Food Summit in Hong Kong on Earth Day 2023. The event brought together over 100 students, teachers, and sustainability practitioners from 20 local and international schools as well as industry leaders to generate tangible long-term impact and strategies to catalyse change in schools through a series of talks, workshops and discussions.

As a result, school lunch caterers like Sodexo, Chartwells, Maxims, and KIN Food Halls have all committed to include three sustainable, low-carbon dishes on the menus at the schools they work for throughout the subsequent academic year. Collectively, these caterers serve more than 8 million meals to 50 schools in Hong Kong every year.

Watch the video to learn more

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