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Green school lunches (Part 4) - How sustainable is the food you eat?

Updated on July 19, 2012

Note: All text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.


The food we eat can have a major impact on the environment. Producing and transporting food require water, land, energy, and fuel. A few small changes in your students’ lunch can make a difference.

How do food production and transportation affect the environment?

  • Water use - Did you know that a hamburger takes about 1000 gallons of water to produce? Growing the food for the cattle, water for the animals, and water used in processing adds up.
  • Transportation fuel and costs - it’s estimated that food travels an average distance of 1500 miles from its source to its final destination. That’s a lot of gas and pollution.
  • Pesticides, fertilizers, and hormones – All of these chemicals can end up in the soil, in the groundwater, and in our bodies!
  • Pollution is contaminating our food – mercury is found in many fish.
  • Land – One acre of land can support X pounds of beef, X chickens, or it can grow X amount of corn. More land used to produce food means less native habitat, less rainforest.
  • Overfishing has affected the populations of many fish. Some fish are collected in a sustainable way, to protect supplies for years to come, but others are not.
  • Factory farms – there are concerns with the way that animals grown for food are treated, and the waste from large farms can pollute the environment.

A school vegetable garden teaches kids about growing food and provides fresh vegetables.
A school vegetable garden teaches kids about growing food and provides fresh vegetables. | Source

How can your school make a difference?

  • Reduce the amount of meat served. This is one of the most significant things you can do.
  • Participate in “Meatless Mondays” where the hot lunch menu has only vegetarian options and students bringing lunch from home are encouraged to eat vegetarian as well. Find more information about this movement here -
  • Reduce beef and pork consumption – choose chicken or fish instead.
  • Ask your school or district about the food it serves. Where is it purchased? What is in it? Is any of it organic?
  • Explore local sources for vegetables and fruits to see if some of the school’s food can be purchased through smaller farms or urban gardens.
  • Write a letter to your school or district suggesting they switch to organic produce, at least for the “dirty dozen”. For a list, see here -
  • Start a vegetable garden at your school! While it’s unlikely you would produce a significant amount of produce, teaching kids how to garden increases the chance they’ll garden at home. It also shows them where their food comes from.
  • Teach kids and parents about selecting earth-friendly fish, and ask about the species that are served in the cafeteria. More information about the most sustainable species can be found at, along with a downloadable pocket guide.
  • Participate in the backyard chicken movement and set up a coop at your school. Kids can take home fresh eggs and learn about caring for chickens.

The easiest step to take towards a more sustainable diet is to reduce the amount of meat you eat. Few if any schools will be able to implement all of the changes mentioned above, but even small ones will encourage kids, teachers, and parents to think about how the food choices that they make affect the environment, which may translate to changes at home.


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