Strategy #2: Menu Planning and Low-Carbon Purchasing

Menu Planning and Low-Carbon Purchasing

2.1 Efficient menu planning and ordering

Menu planning is a complex and multi-faceted effort that impacts marketing, revenue, and customer satisfaction. Food waste and low-carbon food purchasing can be considered while at the same time balancing other priorities. Menu strategies and choices can promote efficient purchasing that avoids excess purchases, purchases that may be inappropriate in terms of consumer desires, and purchases that may spoil quickly. Observation and measurement of foods chosen and wasted can reduce unnecessary purchases, and hence, unnecessary production. When food is not purchased in the first place, all of the emissions associated with that food are avoided.

Efficient meal planning and ordering can include moving from large batch production to more focus on cook-to-order service and finding the happy medium between too many food choices and too few. Too many choices may result in more food prepared than needed and too few choices can result in food wasted when a consumer cannot choose food that is desired.

Case Study: Swansea University in Swansea, Wales

Food planners for conference centers and public venues that provide services to large groups from the general public or organized groups face unique challenges. The number of visitors or attendees and their food choices and portion preferences can be hard to predict. Food may need to be served in large amounts and very quickly if service happens during breaks in an event (e.g. sports events). Multiple kitchens and cooking and storage methods may hinder coordination and increase overproduction and spoilage. Multiple vendors create challenges for purchasing agents.

Case Study: Oregon Zoo

2.2 Buy imperfect food items

According to the Natural Resource Defense Council’s 2012 report, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, once crops have been harvested culling is the primary reason for fresh produce losses. Culling involves removing produce prior to sale due to quality or appearance criteria such as size, shape, color, and blemish level. In NRDC’s research, they found losses such as the following: One large cucumber farmer estimated that fewer than half of the vegetables he grows leave his farm and that 75% of the cucumbers he culls out are edible. A packer of citrus, stone fruits and grapes estimated that 20-50% of the produce he handles is unmarketable even though perfectly edible.

Imperfect food is becoming a sought after item thanks to a number of efforts. Sainsbury in the UK has committed to taking 100% of British farm crops regardless of appearance. Loblaws, Canada’s largest food retailer recently launched a new retail campaign to promote misshapen “ugly” produce at a discounted price.

In May 2014, food service operator Bon Appetit launched a pilot in California and Washington to work with farmers, distributors and chefs to save “cosmetically challenged” produce from going to waste. In California, the program has saved 35,000 pounds of produce otherwise destined for the landfill. Bon Appetit has the opportunity to scale up this project to serve its 500 cafes in 33 states. Already efforts in Oregon and some East Coast states have begun.

2.3 Local sourcing

“Buying local” is a very popular concept, especially when it comes to food. Many positive qualities are attributed to local food purchasing, for instance that it keeps more money circulating in the local economy, and that shopping at farmers’ markets and through a community-supported agriculture program promotes neighborhood connections. And it seems intuitively reasonable that local foods would have a lower carbon footprint, because transportation emissions are lower. Sometimes this is true and sometimes not. Check out the box to learn more about the pros and cons of using local sourcing as a carbon reduction strategy.

Does Local Sourcing Reduce GHG Emissions?

For most foods, transportation emissions make up only a small fraction of the carbon footprint of food. For the average US diet, only 4 % of farm-to-retail GHG emissions are associated with transport of food from the final producer through wholesale and retail channels. By contrast, 83% of emissions are associated with growing and manufacturing food. So in most cases, buying “local” reduces emissions by only a few percentage points, and these reductions can be easily offset if the “local” food has slightly higher production-related impacts. Production-related impacts (e.g., energy used for irrigation; nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizers) are very sensitive to soil types and farming practices. Food storage can also make a difference. For example, a German study found that local (German) apples had the lowest carbon footprint in the fall, when local apples were in season. But in the spring, fresh New Zealand apples had a lower carbon footprint: the added emissions of shipping apples by ocean freighter were smaller than the extra emissions required to maintain “local” apples in cold storage. Seasonal production using low-carbon inputs and growing methods is probably a much more important emissions reduction strategy than buying local.

There are some instances, however, when local purchases are more consistently helpful at reducing GHG emissions:

  • Emissions associated with air freight are typically quite high, so fresh berries or seafood flown from distant markets likely have a high carbon footprint, and should be avoided.
  • Fresh field vegetables (lettuce and spinach, for example) have fairly low production-related emissions relative to transportation.
  • Other items with low production-related emissions but high emissions associated with transport are good candidates for buying local. A classic example would be any beverage where water is the primary ingredient (such as soda): the carbon footprint of the beverage (water) is low, but the footprint of transporting heavy water by truck can be relatively high.

It is worth noting two carbon benefits of buying local that are often not considered: 1) The impacts of diesel particulate emissions from trucks transporting goods are not considered in GHG inventories. Reducing those emissions will benefit climate change mitigation efforts and public health. For more on the impacts of diesel emissions, see the Toolkit’s Guidance on Reducing the Carbon Impacts of Diesel Emissions ; 2) Buying local provides shorter transport and storage times for perishable foods. Studies have documented that this often results in higher nutritional benefits. Shorter storage and transport time may also result in less food spoilage and hence, food waste. As noted by NRDC in its 2012 report, “Inconsistent refrigeration [during transportation] is less of a problem today but it still occurs when trucks malfunction or are involved in accidents. Other handling problems occur when produce is kept at improper temperatures such as when it sits too long on loading docks. Imported products can wait days at the ports for testing, significantly reducing their shelf life.”

2.4 Low-carbon purchasing

The life cycle carbon footprint of different types of food varies greatly, depending on several factors, including:

  • Production at the agricultural stage
  • Transportation between field, manufacturing/packaging, retailer, institution or home
  • Storage during all life-cycle stages
  • End-of-life management

However, there are accepted principles about which types of food are generally low, medium, and high impact. When looking at USDA’s MyPlate, the recommended daily diet for Americans, protein (including meat) and dairy are the two highest impact food categories, comprising about 47% and 35% of the total emissions of the recommended diet per day, respectively. Grains fall in the middle impact category, with about 7% of total emissions, and fruits and vegetables fall in the lowest impact category, at about 5% and 6% of emissions, respectively.

Some of the same food types that are high impact for GHG emissions are also are high impact when it comes to other environmental impacts and health. A 2014 study, published in Nature concluded the following:

Diets link environmental and human health. Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. By 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80 per cent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing. Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies.

Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.

It is important to think about where in the life cycle of different foods the carbon emissions are most significant. Using a life cycle approach helps inform the overall impact of different types of food that institutions purchase. The graphic below looks at production emissions and “post farm-gate” emissions.

Production emissions compared to “post farm-gate” emissions

From Environmental Working Group, Meat Eaters Guide, 2011. 

Two points are important in considering this graphic: 1) For food and most other materials and products, production emissions tend to dominate; 2) Certain food types (e.g. meat and dairy) dominate in terms of GHG emissions when comparing different categories of food. 

Many production factors influence the carbon footprint of food. Examples include the more obvious such as mode of transport and transport miles and whether or not refrigeration was required for storage or transport. Factors also include the less obvious and harder to obtain factors such as the type of feed (and fertilizers and methods used to grow that feed) that an animal consumes, whether fish is caught from a weak or a strong population (more fuel use if it takes more time to catch the same quantity of fish), the amount of irrigation and associated energy needed to grow the food, the use of greenhouses, the use of low-carbon energy sources for running equipment and lighting on farms, or the amount of deforestation that occurred to plant crops.

In lieu of such information, purchasers have a couple of options:

  1. Purchase fewer high-carbon foods, based on the general life cycle information that is available. Taking a look at options for non-animal protein is a good place to start.
  2. Advocate for meaningful food certifications specific to carbon, and use such certifications wisely (see box).

At some time in the future, food purchasers in the US may be able to compare individual foods (both within and across different food types) based on certified carbon labels. This would allow buyers to choose between foods and food producers based on GHG emissions, thereby creating demand for lower-carbon production. Certified carbon labels, also called “environmental product declarations” would serve much like nutrition labels.

While this type of information could help institutional buyers make more informed decisions, its greater impact would probably be on producer behavior. Evidence suggests that the mere act of calculating the carbon footprint of a product (food or other) may uncover opportunities to reduce environmental impacts, even if the footprint is never disclosed or publicized.

Significant work is currently underway in the European Union to try and resolve this issue. Solutions may eventually find their way to the US. Until then, large government purchasers of food should not compare competing products of the same type (as opposed to broad categories like meat protein vs. plant-based protein) on carbon footprints. Given that most products don’t even have a calculated carbon footprint, purchasers can best act by encouraging producers to begin providing this information. Simply calculating the carbon footprint may generate information that can help to identify hot spots (those parts of the life cycle that contribute the most to emissions), which in turn can help to prioritize among different methods of reducing emissions.

Carbon Certifications of Food

By reducing the amount of meat and dairy items purchased for your institution, you can have a direct impact on reducing the overall carbon impact of food service operations. There are many creative methods for substituting meat and dairy in your institution’s meals, and one strategy is to start by serving less red meat, which is the highest impact food category. By substituting other forms of protein for beef, your facility can easily begin to reduce its carbon footprint. Other strategies are provided in the following case studies.

See below for tools and case studies related to this strategy: