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How changes to school lunch menus could help the planet

The $14 billion National School Lunch Program provides midday meals to nearly 40% of U.S. children each day.

A new study in the journal Communications Earth & Environment looks at the environmental impacts of these lunches and how shifting the menu could help.

The data show 40% of environmental impacts during the 2014–2015 school year came from just 20% of lunches.

Beyond the usual global warming potential, the study assessed impacts on land and water use, and on harmful nutrient concentrations known as eutrophication.

That wider view encompasses a more complicated picture.

Poultry lacks beef's broad environmental footprint, but accounts for 19% of water consumption because it makes up half of all meat served in lunches. Seafood from aquaculture has a lower global warming impact but can contribute to eutrophication.

Seafood, nuts and seeds offer alternatives that can improve the environmental profile of lunches, but only if they are sustainably sourced. Nuts and seeds generally have less of an environmental impact than foods from animals do, but tree nuts like almonds use 3-6 times more water than animal proteins. The authors suggest peanuts and seeds like sunflower, sesame, or pumpkin as alternatives.

Because the National School Lunch Program also helps stabilize commodity prices by generating demand, changing lunch menus could also have ripple effects for farmers, potentially lowering the risk of growing more expensive produce.

Overall, the authors find serving less meat and more whole grains could reduce the environmental impacts of school lunches, but said other factors deserve consideration, too. They include food costs and access, school infrastructure, nutrition quality and children’s prior exposure and acceptance.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk from 2016 to 2024.