Public procurement has played an essential role in bringing climate technologies such as wind and solar from niche to mainstream. It also could be key to scaling the plant-based ecosystem, lowering the carbon footprint of food production. Schools might be the public infrastructure soon kicking off this development.

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and Meatless Monday have been advocating for a shift to sustainable and healthy cafeteria food for years. Now, U.S. representatives Nydia Velázquez and Jamaal Bowman from New York have introduced the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act. The new bill — endorsed by over 100 environmental and social justice groups — aims to fund plant-based entrée options for students that are healthier, more climate-friendly and more culturally appropriate than the current choices.

Impossible Foods, a plant-based meat company, is also betting on a new generation of sustainable eaters. It has recently secured Child Nutrition Labels for its burger, a milestone for entering the K-12 school food market. A closer look at the bill indicates its potential impact on carbon emissions, food justice and plant-based supply chains.

Growing a generation of sustainable eaters

“At the same time as we invest urgently in the transition to renewable energy, we must build sustainable food systems at every level of our society — and our public education system can lead the way,” Bowman said in a press release in the bill’s announcement. The bill would create a voluntary grant program for school districts to help them address major challenges related to offering plant-based meals including the lack of culinary training, a dearth of supplier partnerships, higher procurement and labor costs and the need for marketing and student engagement.

The pilot grant program aims to make $10 million available to schools over three years, prioritizing schools that serve a high proportion of free or reduced-price lunches. It also will give preferred treatment to schools planning to collaborate with non-profits, community partners and agricultural producer groups, offer related curricular activities and develop a plan for culturally appropriate meals. In addition, the bill encourages schools to procure plant-based foods from beginning, veteran, socially disadvantaged or local farmers. While this social justice focus is applaudable, I fear that schools won’t have the personnel resources to develop such intricate meal plans and sourcing programs. The bill might be trying to kill too many birds with one stone.

A simple focus on plant-based ingredients rather than trying to set up new supply chains, meal plans and curricula already would be powerful. A recent analysis by Friends of the Earth outlined the scope of the opportunity from a climate perspective: The meat and cheese served as part of school lunches in California make up 95 percent of the carbon footprint of school meals. A similar story likely can be told across the country. Switching from cheeseburgers, hot dogs and pepperoni pizzas to bean chilis, veggie pasta and falafel wraps just a few times per week can make a big difference. The Oakland Unified School District made such changes over 2014-2015 and accomplished a 14 percent reduction of its carbon footprint while saving $42,000 and increasing student satisfaction.

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