The first student-led Sustainable School Food Summit was held in Hong Kong on Earth Day. The event brought together over 100 students, teachers, and sustainability practitioners from 20 local and international schools in Hong Kong as well as industry leaders to explore the sustainability challenges associated with making sure school lunches are sustainable.
The summit was co-hosted by Drop In The Ocean (DITO), a student environmental group at Chinese International School, The Alliance for Sustainable Schools (TASS), a non-profit working on sustainability in schools, and Grassroots Initiatives, a sustainable food consultancy.
Food is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and biodiversity loss: one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions result from food and agriculture. What we eat, therefore, lies at the heart of trying to tackle climate change, reducing water stress, pollution, restoring lands back to forests or grasslands, and protecting the world’s wildlife. Meat has the biggest carbon footprint and in Hong Kong, meat consumption per capita is one of the highest in the world – as much as 664 g per day.
School food needs to be part of the solution, but it hasn’t got much attention until now. The purpose of the sustainable school food summit was to elevate the conversation about sustainability of school food and to bust some common myths that are obstacles to sustainable school food becoming more widespread and popular such as – “sustainable food is too expensive”, “most students don’t like/won’t eat sustainable food”, and “sustainable food isn’t possible at scale in Hong Kong.”
Among the attending schools were American School Hong Kong, Discovery College, ECF Saint Too Canaan College, French International School, and Sir Ellis Kadoorie Secondary School. The focus was on generating tangible long-term impact and strategies to catalyse change in schools through a series of talks, workshops and discussions. The topics included the EAT Lancet planetary health diet, sustainable seafood, plastic packaging, and food waste.
To give attendees a taste of what’s possible, three local chefs well known for their emphasis on sustainable cuisine were invited to create a sustainable dish suitable for inclusion in a school lunch menu. They were: Chef Marc Briol from KIN Food Halls, Chef Michael Smith from Moxie by the Arcane Collective, and Chef Tina Barrat – previously Executive Chef at Ma Seeds of Life. Attendees got to taste the chef’s creations during the conference and cast their votes.
An independent panel of experts also rated the lunch offerings based on sustainability factors and other criteria such as flavour and affordability. The panel included Fontaine Cheng, the Dining Editor of Tatler Hong Kong, Catherine Shih, the President of the CIS Parent Teachers Association, and Sonalie Figueiras, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Green Queen Media and the summit’s keynote speaker.
Figueiras said “The chefs worked to ensure their dishes met a litany of criteria: they had to be tasty with a low-carbon footprint, cost less than 13 HKD per serve, be nutritionally balanced, ethically-sourced, and contain local and regenerative ingredients where possible. They also had to appeal to students – perhaps the toughest audience of all…and incredibly they all did!”
Peggy Chan, Founder of Grassroots Initiatives said “Chefs are often too busy stuck in the kitchen doing their routine work, so when they’re able to stop, look up and see that what they do plays a huge role in our health and the health of our planet, it opens their minds to the possibilities of all the good they can generate.”
After lunch, the students hosted a panel discussion with senior executives from the school food catering companies – Adrian Copeland, Territory Director of Sodexo Hong Kong, Gigi Lau, Head of Marketing and Sustainability at Compass Group Hong Kong, and Matthew Reid, Co-Founder and CEO of KIN Food Halls. The discussion explored some of the challenges facing school food providers when it comes to sustainable food.
The impact of this event will be felt for months to come. School lunch caterers like Sodexo, Chartwells, Maxims, and KIN Food Halls have all committed to include these 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.
Jade, one of the student organisers and a TASS Student Ambassador said “The most remarkable aspect of the event was that we didn’t just talk about sustainability: we put our ideas into practice. The chef’s dishes introduced us to exciting flavours we had never tried before and will definitely be a hit when they appear in school canteens.”
Overall, the event was a huge success. Attendees left with valuable takeaways whilst students had the rare opportunity to network with other students from around the city and industry experts to share their experiences and brainstorm ways to overcome the challenges surrounding sustainable school food.
Anthony Dixon, Chairman of TASS said “School food is an untapped opportunity to introduce meaningful sustainable practices. This innovative event demonstrates the power of school students working together with suppliers to accelerate change towards a sustainable future. Our hope is that it will be replicated hundreds of times over by schools around the world.”
Harish Kanabar, Head of School at Shekou International School (SIS) said “We were delighted to take our two TASS Student Ambassadors to this student-led event, which offered many insights into the need to prioritise sustainable food choices in schools so we can help reduce our environmental impact and create a healthier future for ourselves and for generations to come. Events like this are essential in promoting sustainable practices in schools and encouraging young people to take an active role in creating a better tomorrow.”