Knowledge for better food systems

Contribution of healthy and unhealthy primary school meals to greenhouse gas emissions in England: linking nutritional data and greenhouse gas emission data of diets

A recent paper by Wickramasinghe et al, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has quantified the nutritional quality and carbon footprint of meals provided by primary schools in England.

There is increasing concern regarding the sustainability of global food production. It is unclear whether sustainable food (defined narrowly in this study as low in GHG emission intensity) is healthy or not. This study developed methods to simultaneously quantify the nutritional quality and carbon footprint of primary school meals in England with uncertainty values around the estimates. Applying these methods to this specific sector is valuable because school meals represent the largest sector of government food procurement in England. With the launch of The School Food Plan, a policy addressing healthiness and sustainability of school meals in England, and the universal free primary school meal programme which was introduced in September 2014, there is renewed interest on school meals and sustainability in England.

The paper used the “Primary School Food Survey 2009” (PSFS) dataset, which is a survey the Childrens Food Trust conducted in a nationally representative sample of 139 primary schools in England. The survey included 6,690 students who consumed school lunches and 3,488 students who brought packed lunches. This paper estimated the total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) per KG of the food items contributing to those lunches based on the results of a systematic review of life cycle analyses. In both school lunches and packed lunches the “meat, fish and alternatives” group contributed the largest share of GHGEs. The mean GHGE value per school lunch was estimated to be 0.72 (95% uncertainty interval 0.52-1.34) KgCO2e and per packed lunch as 0.70 (0.58-0.94) KgCO2e. The total GHGEs due to primary school meals in England per year is 578.1 million KgCO2e (455 million-892 million).  When healthy meals are defined by salt, saturated fat and sugar levels, the mean GHGE of healthy school lunches was 0.54 (0.47–1.46) KgCO2e and the mean GHGE of unhealthy school lunches was 0.81 (0.57–1.44) KgCO2e. However, these healthy meals with lower GHGEs have less fibre and fewer micronutrients—iron, calcium, zinc and folate.

The paper concludes by showing that if all children achieved a healthy meal defined as having a low level of salt, free sugars and saturated fat the total GHGEs from primary school meals would be 441.2 million KgCO2e (384 – 1,192), saving 136.9million KgCO2e compared to current total emissions from primary school meals.  This study contributes to the already published literature which shows that changing diets to make them less carbon intensive could compromise micronutrient levels.  

Abstract

Background/Objectives: School meals represent the largest sector in Government food procurement in the United Kingdom. This paper aims to quantify, simultaneously, the nutritional quality and carbon footprint of meals provided by primary schools in England.

Subjects/Methods: The School Food Trust conducted the ‘Primary School Food Survey 2009’ in a nationally representative sample of 139 primary schools in England. The survey included 6690 students who consumed school lunches and 3488 students who brought packed lunches. We estimated the total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) per Kg of the food items contributing to those lunches based on the results of a systematic review of life-cycle analyses.

Results: In both school lunches and packed lunches, the ‘meat, fish and alternatives’ group contributed the largest share of GHGEs. The mean GHGE value per school lunch was estimated to be 0.72 (95% uncertainty interval 0.52–1.34) KgCO2e and per packed lunch was 0.70 (0.58–0.94) KgCO2e. The total GHGE due to primary school meals in England per year is 578.1 million KgCO2e (455–892 million).

Conclusions: If all children achieved a healthy meal defined by having a low level of salt, free sugars and saturated fat, the total GHGEs from primary school meals would be 441.2 million KgCO2e (384–1192), saving 136.9 million KgCO2e compared with the current total emissions from primary school meals. This paper demonstrates that changes in the primary school food sector can have an impact on UK GHGEs.

Citation

Wickramasinghe, K. K., Rayner, M., Goldacre, M., Townsend, N., Scarborough, P., (2016). European Journal of Clinical Nutrition advance, doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2016.101

Read the full paper here.

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