Environmental Impacts of the U.S. National School Lunch Program


Altering dietary patterns is essential to ameliorating the environmental impacts of the world food system. The U.S. National School Lunch Program shapes the consumption of America’s children and adolescents, providing a meaningful opportunity to reduce dietary environmental impacts. Here, we collate life cycle inventories relevant to the National School Lunch Program and assess the environmental impacts of a representative sample of lunches served in the U.S. during the 2014–2015 school year to inform school meal policy. The mean ± SE impact per lunch was 1.5 ± 0.03 kg CO2 eq. climate change, 1.8 ± 0.03 m2a crop eq. land use, 0.055 ± 0.00 m3 water consumption, and 0.24 ± 0.05 g phosphorus eq. freshwater and 3.1 ± 0.00 g nitrogen eq. marine eutrophication. Meat products contributed the most (28–67%) to total impacts for all impact categories. Lunches in the top quintile of impacts contributed an outsized proportion to total impacts (~40%) suggesting that policy changes related to these lunches should be prioritized. To reduce the environmental impacts of the National School Lunch Program, our results support increasing whole grain requirements and providing serving size or frequency limits for beef.

Speaker summary

Dr. Stern, a fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development.
Dr. Stern recently completed a Ph.D. at Tufts University, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in Agriculture, Food and Environment, where her research focused on assessing the environmental outcomes of federal food policy implementation. At EPA, she will be working on quantifying the environmental impacts of food waste and determining the benefits of different waste management pathways and opportunities for source reduction. Her research interests include life cycle assessment, food system modelling, and behavioural interventions. Prior to completing a Ph.D., Alex worked as a community advocate in Washington, D.C. supporting food access, nutrition, and food waste recovery programs with D.C. Central Kitchen.