Schools Catering and Net Zero Food Choices

This summer’s record-breaking temperatures have brought about an increased awareness of climate change – and in a recent research poll carried out by John Lewis, three-quarters of Britons now want to see the government take more action.

“A poll of 2,000 adults found 77 per cent believed the new government should do even more than their predecessors to protect the UK from global warming.”

Many of those asked also recognised their own accountability, as the poll reveals that 32 per cent reflected on how their own personal actions have been damaging to the environment. This is perhaps good news if this feeling can be directed into behaviour change that is positive for the environment, and this is where Schools are uniquely well placed to make a real difference through direct action with their staff and pupils and through outreach into the wider communities.

So if you are a school looking to make a difference and demonstrate climate change leadership for your local community, then one key area that you can focus on, that will not only make a direct impact on your own school emissions but will also send positive messages and hopefully knowledge and skills back into the local community, is food.

Why do I think this? Firstly catering and food choices are daily activities made by all members of the school and wider community. Therefore everyone can be empowered to make a difference; secondly, food production is one of the biggest carbon emitters globally, accounting for around 37% of all greenhouse gases. To put this in context, air travel accounts for around 2%, so you can see that changing a school and the wider community’s food and catering habits has the potential to make a significant difference. Changes can also be implemented quickly, and the skills, knowledge and understanding gained from making these changes (if properly explained and understood) are easily transferred to life outside of school at home and in the wider community.

Globally Food Production is one of the biggest carbon challenges, but the good news is there is a lot we can do. If we break down the global figure of 37% of greenhouse emissions from food production, 57% of these come from animal-based food production and only 29% from plant-based production. So one quick win is to simply reduce the amount of meat in our diets or on the menu.

To be clear, nobody needs to stop eating meat or high-carbon food types necessarily; we just need to reduce the amount we eat overall by making better food choices. There tends to also be a correlation between the carbon intensity of a food type and its £ cost, with lower-carbon food types often being cheaper, and so with the current cost of living crisis, low-carbon food choices can provide a win-win. With this in mind and to help inform decision-making, then it’s clearly worth understanding that different animal and plant food production types have very different carbon footprints, as the following chart shows.

So being aware of the carbon footprint of even just a handful of different foodstuffs can help us all make informed and positive food/meal choices. If nothing else, then simply understanding that beef production is the biggest single contributor to carbon emissions. Knowing that it’s significantly worse than any other food production will hopefully help change behaviours.

Applying this knowledge and information at an organisational level, particularly in a school catering service, also needs to be considered. So what are the biggest sources of emissions in school catering, and where do people need to put their energies to reduce them?

Typically, the school catering chain is made up of food production, processing and logistics and then, once it lands on site, kitchen production, waste handling and disposal. What we have learnt is that the biggest sources of emission are:

  • Around 60% to 70% of total emissions are due to activities in agricultural production and food processing.
  • 5% to 10% are due to transportation
  • 10% to 20% of emissions are from canteen activities (cooking, storage, washing)
  • Depending on how disposal is done, a negative impact of -4 to -16% emissions

Food waste accounts for 8% to 10% of greenhouse gases globally, so again a focus on reducing waste will have a big impact and in a school setting if food waste can be diverted away from landfill and be processed in a bio-digester then this can have a negative carbon impact of -4 to -16% emissions

However, the vast majority of emissions come from the type of food and recipes used across the catering service. Based on research, the average kilo of food that caterers buy is made up of:

  • 42% fruit and veg
  • 33% groceries (rice, pasta, bread, oils)
  • 12% dairy products
  • 7% other meat
  • 3% red meat
  • 3% fish

Based on this, the average food kilo generates 2.5 kilos of carbon emissions (twice the weight of the kilo of food). There are major variations in this depending on the types of food bought, ranging from 1.5 kilos of carbon for schools using greater proportions of fruit and veg and poultry to nearly 4 kilos for schools buying lots of red meat.

Any change you make will have a large cumulative impact on your carbon footprint.

For example, if a catering service serving 25,000 meals using anaerobic waste disposal (low carbon impact) served the average menu, generating 2.5 kilos of carbon per kilo of food, their total emissions would be 1,170 tonnes.

If the same service, under the same conditions, procured the lower impact menu, generating 1.5 kilos of carbon per kilo of food, their total emissions would equate to 740 tonnes of carbon.

So simple changes to your school’s menus and catering service combined with a campaign to help inform better meal choices by staff and pupils, could not only deliver significant carbon savings for your school and communities but could also offset some of the rising prices that all catering staff are currently struggling with.

If you would like to learn more about reducing your school’s carbon emissions, please contact our experienced team for advice and support on the best way to source suppliers that support your school’s sustainability plans.