French researchers have studied the environmental and health effects of various changes to school canteen menus. The result: Introducing three vegetarian meals, one of fish and one of poultry or pork each week, will halve greenhouse gas emissions without compromising nutrient balance.
“School canteens play an important role in the transition to more sustainable eating due to their very large volumes, as well as their role as a model for families,” explains Nicole Darmon, nutritionist and director of research at Inrae (National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment). With food accounting for a quarter of France’s greenhouse gas emissions, new recommendations currently being made by the National Council for Collective Nutrition regarding a possible revision of school canteen menu rules are a strategic issue. The main question for specialists is the ratio of animal and vegetable products, since “plants have a very low environmental impact, while ruminants such as cattle and sheep have a very high carbon footprint” Nicole Darmon remembers.
In support of meat cuts, ANSES (the Health Agency responsible for food safety) already published an expert report in November 2021 stating that only vegetarian meals can be served in school cafeterias without disrupting children’s diets. consumption is too much. But last March, Nicole Darmon, who is affiliated with the scientists at MS Nutrition startup, published another study (1) with less sweeping findings. After analyzing more than 2,000 typical meals served in French school canteens and modeling the nutrient intake and environmental impacts of different menus, the scientists concluded that three vegetarian menus would be ideal from a health and environmental point of view. , one fish menu and one pork or poultry menu each week.
Save CO2, water… and money
This difference in results with ANSES is explained by the fact that “ANSES experts calculated the average consumption of children at home to assess the nutritional balance, while we preferred that this balance be provided by canteens, regardless of dietary practices at home,” explains Nicole Darmon. Under this intermediate scenario, the environmental benefits remain significant anyway: “This will mean half the greenhouse gas emissions of the current situation, but will also benefit almost every other environmental criteria studied, such as water consumption or land use. »
Thus, these results confirm the main conclusion that can be drawn from the ANSES report, namely that school cafeterias can do much more for the planet than offering one vegetarian meal a week, which is currently possible at will. And the more that “vegetable proteins are usually cheaper”Nicole Darmon recalls. Thus, such a change could allow families to save money or even purchase higher quality products such as organic and locally prepared meals.
After receiving many responses to this post, especially from livestock experts, Nicole Darmon admits that she is finally starting to analyze an additional scenario in which beef and lamb will return to the weekly meat diet in addition to poultry and pork. “Given the fact that there is disagreement about the relative environmental impact of different types of meat, this option allows for flexibility and, more importantly, is more culturally acceptable.” justifies Nicole Darmon.