Climate-Smart School Meal Programs

Bar graph illustrating how Beef, porch, and Cheese have largest greenhouse gas emission

Climate-Smart School Meal Programs

    by Melissa Pradhan, Survey Associate: Asia, The Pacific, & The Middle East

The IPCC Reports have repeatedly called for alarms to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to limit the increase of global average temperature to 2ºC, if not 1.5ºC. World class evidence and studies have indicated that failing to meet this target will result in catastrophic events with the potential to cause adverse cascading impacts on human life and the economy. 

Emissions sourced from the Agriculture, Forest and Other Land Use sector alone have been noted to be just under a quarter of the total anthropogenic GHG emissions making up to approximately 10–12 Gigatonne of CO2eq per year (Smith, 2014). Mitigating GHG emissions from this sector, therefore, has the potential to deliver large-scale emission reduction. 

In the 2020 academic year, 330.3 million students received school meal programs globally (GCNF, 2022). In the United States alone, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reaches millions of children every day. Nutrition Standards for the US NSLP shapes a USD 14 billion market and food service directors are obligated to adhere to the recommended nutrition standards. However, it was found that the current menus are not aligned with the latest nutritional science, and in addition have huge impacts on the environment. Researchers found that the NSLP menus incorporate the most carbon-intensive foods compared to the diet recommendations from the EAT-Lancet Commission’s healthy reference diet (Poole, 2020).

A study by Stern identified that the use of animal products in school lunches, mainly beef and dairy, was primarily the major driver of emissions (Stern, 2022). This is because beef hot dogs generate seven times more carbon than tofu and veggie stir-fry rice, for example. If all School districts opted for a reduced animal food menu, the US alone could minimize their carbon footprint by 700 million kg CO2eq that is equivalent to installing 99,000 residential solar panels or eliminating 150,000 cars from the roads for a year (​​Hamerschlag, 2017). In addition, reducing institutional purchase of factory-farmed meat can also strengthen local food systems.

Increasing evidence suggests that school meal programs can be made both healthier and climate-friendly at a low cost without having to compromise on meeting the recommended nutrition standards (Hamerschlag, 2017). As school districts have the liberty to design their own menu to meet the federal nutrition requirements, they hold the potential to influence dietary behaviors and the country’s agricultural landscape for years to come. 

Bar graph illustrating how Beef, porch, and Cheese have largest greenhouse gas emission

The Oakland Unified School District, for example, has already successfully implemented two initiatives – Oakland’s Lean and Green Wednesday Program, and California Thursdays through which they were able to successfully decrease their carbon footprint by 14% simply by reducing the frequency of meat, poultry and cheese in school lunches and opting for plant-based nutritious meals. The district also saved USD 42,000 by cutting costs by one percent per meal (Hamerschlag, 2017). In a similar manner, preliminary calculations suggest that the NSLP could also cut their cost from USD 3.81 per meal to nearly half if the EAT diet is incorporated into their menus. 

Outside the United States, as a part of the National Climate Initiative, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU) has formed a joint project initiated and managed by  the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) called Climate Efficient School Canteens (KEEKS). Through the project, 22 different ways to reduce GHGs have been analyzed and quantified through the “Measure-Map”. For example, the kitchen staff, chef and caterers are trained to prepare low-cost, healthy, sustainable meals, and utilize energy-saving appliances, plant-based ingredients and low-carbon meat alternatives. This way, KEEKS has significantly contributed to meet the German Government’s target of reducing 40% of the country’s GHG emissions by 2020 by training over 12,500 kitchen staff, reaching 23,000 students across Germany, and offering 140,000 students plant-based school lunches for a week.

Overall, to make school lunches more climate-friendly, some low-hanging fruits could be:

  • Incorporating lunches that include more whole grains, seafood, nuts and seeds to meet the protein requirements. 
  • Reducing the frequency of serving beef and dairy and instead utilizing cheaper forms of protein such as legumes
  • Switching to plant-centric meals and/or seafood
  • Opting for energy-efficient kitchen appliances and behavior

In addition, local governments and nonprofits can also assist schools in building capacity to begin serving more sustainable lunches. The current policy requirements for school meals should also be updated to allow a wider variety of available climate-smart grain options. As more agricultural products are increasingly susceptible to the changing climate, expanding the options of food items on school menus can also ensure that we are climate-resilient and increase food security.

The world food system is not only driving climate change but also aiding increasing levels of diet-related diseases. It is imperative that we take initiatives to adopt sustainable diets and reduce carbon emissions wherever possible in order to safeguard human life. There are opportunities to opt for a lower carbon footprint for school meal programs through minor changes in our choices of items on the school menu, and the co-benefits in the form of reduced costs and increased nutrients in climate-friendly school meals can help us develop healthier lunches. 


Global Child Nutrition Foundation (2022). School Meal Programs Around the World: Results from the 2021 Global Survey of School Meal Programs ©. Accessed at link.

Hamerschlag, K. & Polk, U.K., (2017). Shrinking the Carbon and Water Footprint of School Food: A Recipe for Combating Climate Change. Friends of the Earth. Accessed at link.

Poole, M.K., Musicus, A.A. & Kenney, E.L. (2020). Alignment of US School Lunches with the EAT-Lancet Healthy Reference Diet’s Standards for Planetary Health. Health Affairs V.39 N.12.

Smith, P. et. al. (2014). Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Accessed at link.

Stern, A.L., Blackstone, N.T., Economos, C.D. et al. (2022). Less animal protein and more whole grain in US school lunches could greatly reduce environmental impacts. Nature: Commun Earth Environ 3, 138 (2022).

UNFCCC (2018). Climate-Efficient School Kitchens and Plant-Powered Pupils Germany. Accessed at link.

Eleven Years of International School Meals Day

school meal program in Tunisia

Eleven Years of International School Meals Day

Children in Scotland manages International School Meals Day (ISMD) and in this guest blog, Head of Engagement & Learning, Simon Massey reflects on how the initiative has developed over the years.

I started working at Children in Scotland in 2015 and ISMD was already well-established as a partnership between Scotland and the US, with a wide range of organisations across the world, including the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, working hard to support the day. From the beginning the aim was to create a unique campaign that raised awareness of good nutrition for all children, and, thanks to ongoing Scottish Government funding, that continues today.

The initiative has changed and developed over the years but has held onto some core elements including:

Raising awareness of the importance of the nutritional quality of school meal programs worldwide
Promoting the connection between healthy eating, education, and better learning
Connecting children around the world to foster healthy eating habits and promote wellbeing in schools
Sharing success stories of school meal programs around the globe.
ISMD2023, which took place on 9 March 2023, was once again a success. This year’s theme was ‘Our changing food – methods, menus and meals’.

We saw an increase in the number of countries getting involved, from 47 in 2022 to 63 this year, while our potential online reach jumped from 3.3 million in 2022 to an amazing 10.4 million this year! Numbers downloading our online resources almost tripled in the past year and we had 579 different individuals or organisations contribute one way or another this year.

International School Meals Day Engagement Statistics Infographic

The ISMD website and Twitter provide a one-stop shop for people to explore the things that have been shared over the past few years. The website also has resources and activities that can be used in schools. Each year we try to do something new – the past two years, for example, have included an online ‘quilt’ that pulls together a wide range of images from each year’s ‘shared practice’, and this year for the first time, we produced a series of ‘Top 10’ activity sheets, encouraging children and young people to consider their local food, healthy options and favourite school meals.


Although ISMD2023 was only a few weeks ago, we’re already starting to think about what we’ll do for next year. There will still be a range of resources developed and we will come up with a new theme for the day, but we’re also really interested in developing an ISMD Commitment Mark… watch this space! 


If any of this inspires you to get involved, or you have any ideas for next year, please get in touch at – we want to keep building on all our successes and continue to spread the word.

Headshot of Simon Massey, Head of Learning and Engagement at International School Meals Day
About the Author

Simon Massey | Head of Engagement & Learning

Simon is part of Children in Scotland’s Leadership Team and manages the Engagement & Learning Department, comprising the Communications & Marketing team, Learning & Events team and the Membership Service. He also coordinates Children in Scotland’s child protection activity.

He has a keen interest in equality and diversity, particularly LGBT+ issues and led the organisation through LGBT Youth Scotland’s LGBT Charter of Rights accreditation in 2018-19. He is also a member of the Social Work Cross-Party Group and SCVO’s Intermediaries Network.

Simon joined Children in Scotland in September 2015 and has 35 years’ experience working in the children’s sector in various roles including volunteer, front-line practitioner, manager and consultant.

He is a qualified social worker and has undertaken extensive child protection and post-abuse therapeutic social work as well as work in residential childcare settings. He is also a qualified practice teacher with experience of the social work education field and local authority workforce development.

Outside of Children in Scotland, Simon is the Chair of Bright Light, an Edinburgh-based charity providing relationship counselling services and he spends a large amount of time chasing his dog, Alfie, around

Discussing AUDA-NEPAD Home-Grown School Feeding Guidelines

A farmer in Morogoro, Tanzania, shows the effects of drought on her maize crop. She is enrolled in a farmer field school to learn about improved, drought tolerant maize varieties, organized by Tanzanian seed company Tanseed International Limited, with support from CIMMYT's Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project.

Home-Grown School Feeding (HGSF) programs aim to provide school children with nutritious meals while also supporting local agriculture and economies. Since the program’s endorsement by the African Union Development Agency New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD) in 2003, the HGSF concept has continued to attract significant attention due to its potential to simultaneously meet various cross-sectoral objectives.

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GCNF Celebrates International School Meals Day

international school meal at Cambodia elementary school

Every year on March 9, school feeding leaders, government officials, and community members come together to celebrate International School Meals Day. This year, Global Child Nutrition Foundation is celebrating by sharing our top 5 favorite facts about the benefits of school meal programs found around the world.

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The 2022 Forum Report is here!

live illustration showing the many different areas facets of Benin's National Integrated School Meal Program

It has been a few months since school meal programs last gathered together to discuss the current state and future of school feeding. We have done our best to capture the insights, highlights, and more from the 2022 Global Child Nutrition Forum held in Cotonou, Benin in this Forum Report. GCNF wishes our most sincere thanks to Catholic Relief Services for providing feedback and graphic design for the report. 

Available in English and French, we hope readers who were not able to join us in Cotonou will be able to take away just as much information as those who participated in person. Opening and closing ceremonies, plenary sessions, breakout workshops, and school visits are accompanied by photos from the event and links to learn more. Head to the Global Child Nutrition Forum page to start reading!

In the meantime, please enjoy this excerpt from the report on the plenary session presented by the Government of Benin on the country’s National Integrated School Meal Program.

2022 Global Child Nutrition Forum report cover featuring forum logo, photos from the event, and many colored blocks

The National Integrated School Meal Program of Benin

In order to correct disparities across geography, gender, and other barriers to access, the Government of the Republic of Benin founded the National Integrated School Feeding Program, implemented through the Ministry of Preschool and Primary Education. Although other organizations operated programs in Benin in the past and the program is carried out in partnership with other organizations, the government is the primary funder of its national school feeding program. 


Benin identified school feeding as an essential measure in combating the inequalities listed above in addition to fighting hunger and poverty. The school feeding program in Benin has three main principles – effective management and preparation of meals, purchasing local, and complementary activities. A comprehensive set of data collection measures follows the implementation of the program at various levels and in a variety of indicators. Access to drinkable water, access to rural areas during the rainy season, and low participation from some communities in school canteen activities are some of the challenges faced by Benin in carrying out the program. Benin participated in the pilot of the Global Survey of School Meal Programs and has continued to contribute its data to the global database.



What we learned
  • The Government of Benin has set an ambitious goal of achieving a 100% coverage rate in their 7,500 schools by 2023
  • Innovations from universities and research institutions have become more prevalent throughout the program
  • Supplementary activities include deworming, following the nutritional status of students, medical care for students and cooks, and the promotion of sanitation and school hygiene
  • There is a strong emphasis on bettering the productivity of small-scale farmers and the quality of their products to address the challenges currently faced in those areas.
live illustration showing the many different areas facets of Benin's National Integrated School Meal Program