a blond elementary student selecting food in a lunch line

Meals served in the National School Lunch Program are developed with nutrition, cost, and youth preferences in mind, with little room or direction to consider environmental impact. In a new study using data from over 2.2 million real-world lunches, researchers at Tufts quantified the environmental footprint of each lunch served to see if they could determine patterns and form recommendations for more sustainable lunches.

The study found that low impact school lunches had “20% more whole grains, nearly 20 times more nuts and seeds, and four times less animal protein than high impact lunches.” As a result, the authors concluded that “increasing whole grain requirements and providing serving size or frequency limits for beef” are the two most effective recommendations for reducing the environmental impacts of the National School Lunch program. 

Increasing the whole grain requirement for school lunches is a consistent recommendation from public health organizations due to whole grains’ nutritional importance for children’s growing brains and bodies, and to help lay the foundation for lifelong healthy eating habits. School lunch offerings have the power to shape students’ preferences and build healthy habits for the long-term. Research consistently demonstrates that repeated exposure to whole grains can shift both food preferences and eating habits in favor of whole grain foods.

As it turns out, an increase in whole grains would also be a win-win for environmental health. As documented in the 2019 EAT-Lancet report and elsewhere, whole grains are one of the most sustainable food groups, requiring very little in the way of land and water. According to the authors of this new study, “federal policy could encourage the service of low-impact lunches by increasing the requirements for whole grains. Whole grains are a nutritious, low-cost, diverse, and versatile food group that might offer solutions to the tradeoffs commonly confronted when proposing the consumption of sustainable diets.”

Our 2021 Whole Grain Consumer Insights Survey found that two-thirds of consumers consider whole grains to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, with nearly 1 in 5 consumers reporting that sustainability is a factor in choosing whole grains. As whole grains’ importance for both human and planetary health moves into mainstream consciousness, the time is ripe for policy makers to act on this evidence-based connection as well.

“Given the relationship between the [National School Lunch Program] and U.S. agriculture, changing the school meals standards presents a unique opportunity to align the [National School Lunch Program] meal pattern requirements with USDA conservation efforts,” report the study authors. After all, the best dietary advice on the planet is meaningless if we aren’t able to produce or access the foods recommended for health.

As it stands, school nutrition standards are in a transitional period for the 2022-2023 & 2023-2024 school years in which 80% of grains served must be whole grain rich. However, the USDA affirms that “a return to stronger nutrition standards is imperative to support healthy eating and improved dietary outcomes,” and that they are committed to their “statutory obligation to develop school meal nutrition standards that are consistent with the goals of the latest Dietary Guidelines.”

As more permanent school meal standards get drafted for the post-2024 era, we urge lawmakers to restore whole grain requirements to 100% whole grain rich, thus improving both the nutritional quality and the environmental sustainability of meals served. (Kelly)

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