Sustainable School Lunches, Oakland: Urban Food Policy Snapshot

by Cameron St. Germain

Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy name: Shrinking the Carbon and Water Footprint of School Food

Location: Oakland Unified School District

Population: 37,000 students (37,147 students during the 2014-15 school year)

Food policy category: Sustainability

Program goals:

  • Reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the district’s school lunches
  • Reduce the water footprint of the district’s school lunches
  • Reduce the cost of school lunches
  • Improve the nutritional quality of school lunches
  • Improve student satisfaction with meal programs

Program initiation

  • The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) partnered with Friends of the Earth (FOE), an organization dedicated to environmental justice. The Center for Good Food Purchasing helped facilitate this partnership and assisted in the acquisition of the food procurement data for the study.
    • As a baseline, FOE assessed the carbon and water footprint of the district’s food procurement during 2012-13 school year, before the implementation of key meat-reduction programs.
    • This data was compared with the footprint from the 2014-15 school year, after the district shifted to include more plant-based foods and less animal products.

How it works

OUSD implemented several programs to change its lunches. The first was Lean and Green Wednesdays. The district had already been practicing Meatless Mondays, but they were not able to serve scratch-cooked meatless meals on Monday because the kitchens were closed on weekends. Lean and Green Wednesdays guaranteed that the weekly vegetarian meals were cooked from scratch.

The district also implemented California Thursdays, a program that had already been created by the Center for Ecoliteracy to encourage schools to purchase food from California farms.

In addition, OUSD cafeterias began serving smaller portions of meat. For example, they replaced 50 percent of the beef in their chili with legumes. These strategies also gave the district more flexibility to purchase more sustainable and healthier meat from Mindful Meats. Mindful Meats uses all organic mature dairy cows, raised on pasture in Point Reyes CA, without antibiotics or hormones.

OUSD also began abiding by the requirements of the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act, which requires school lunches to include more vegetables and fruits.

Progress to date

OUSD is still serving vegetarian meals every week, and featuring produce grown in California on their menu. OUSD includes nutrition lessons in their curriculum, with a focus on teaching kids the importance of eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Why the program is important

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that livestock represents about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The average dietary greenhouse gas footprint of a meat eater is about twice as high as that of a vegan. In addition, the water footprints of meats are significantly higher than the water footprints of fruits, vegetables and grains. Reducing meat consumption reduces greenhouse gas production, water usage, and pollution.

There is a large body of evidence to support the conclusion that decreasing the amount of animal products in one’s diet and increasing the amount of whole plant foods in one’s diet has a positive impact on health. Studies have found that vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, prostate cancer, and overall cancer.


By including less animal foods and more plant foods in its menus over a two-year period, OUSD reduced the carbon footprint of its food program by 14 percent and reduced its water footprint by 6 percent. During this same period, the district also saved $42,000, and increased students meal satisfaction, with more delicious and fresh menus.

According to FOE, the district’s reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would equate to installing solar panels on all of OUSD’s roofs. Compared to other costly strategies, these menu changes are a powerful climate mitigation strategy that a reduced costs for the district.

Learn more

Point of contact:

Kari Hamerschalg – Friends of the Earth, Deputy Director of Food & Technology

Julian Kraus-Polk – Friends of the Earth, Research Associate/ Campaigner, Food & Technology  

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