Primary school students at colorful lunch tables

6 Ways the Cafeteria Can Improve the Climate of Your School

… And Improve the Climate of Our Planet

Steve Cochrane

by Steve Cochrane, IHE Executive Director

As an educator, parent, or student do you want to improve the climate of your school AND the climate of our planet? Look no further than your cafeteria! 

In November 2022, the USDA approved $50 Million in grants to improve the quality of school lunches. Districts can receive up to $150,000 to provide healthier meals. I applaud the focus on enhancing nutrition but would encourage schools to focus on enhancing the entire cafeteria experience as well. The cafeteria can be an incredible key to improving the climate of your school and the climate of our world!

In many schools, the cafeteria is seen simply as a dispenser of chicken nuggets and chocolate milk. It is a place to be monitored and supervised. But the cafeteria can be so much more. It can be another classroom – a place of teaching and learning. We must start thinking of the cafeteria as an extension of our curriculum. 

If we’re teaching about proper nutrition, we must manifest that in our daily menus. If we’re teaching about the environmental dangers of plastics, can we really distribute – and then throw away – thousands of plastic utensils, straws, and bottles? If we want our students to feel culturally connected to a diverse world, should we not provide them with a culturally diverse selection of food? And if we want students to grow in their compassion for all living beings, should we not allow them to opt out of the systems they see as causing suffering to animals?

What follows are 6 ways the cafeteria can transform the social climate of a school and the environmental climate of our planet and improve the health of students and the lives of animals – a wonderful win for all!

1. Eliminate plastics, styrofoam, and single-use disposables.

Imagine the fourth-grader who comes into the cafeteria after learning about the dangers of microplastics to coral reefs, fishes, and other marine life. Or the middle-schooler who shows up for lunch after studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of plastic trash in the ocean currently twice the size of Texas. Are you really going to serve them lunch on styrofoam trays, give them plastic sporks and straws, and sell them water in plastic bottles? The cafeteria is the place where the “hidden curriculum” is revealed. Are the lessons we teach in the classroom evident in our practices in the rest of the school? If your hidden curriculum regarding the environment doesn’t match the one you teach, start by replacing styrofoam trays with reusable trays or biodegradable ones. Eliminate straws altogether. Purchase reusable flatware and a dishwasher to clean it. (There’s an investment up front, but the practice is both cost-effective and environmentally-friendly.) Invite students to bring in their own reusable water bottles and develop a system for making them available for students who might not be able to afford them.

2. Invite students to submit favorite family recipes.

If we value students seeing themselves in the curriculum, we can also value helping them see themselves – and others – in the meals we serve. This can be especially important as we create connections with families that have come to the U.S. from other countries and as we strive to foster a culturally-inclusive climate for all students. The staple diets of many countries are significantly more healthful than the standard American diet, so using the cafeteria to provide traditional cuisines from other cultures will also be good for students’ bodies and minds.

3. Design the cafeteria like a coffee shop.

School climate is enhanced when students find inviting places to eat, socialize, and study. Take some hints from your favorite coffee shop. Add fresh paint, new lighting, pictures, plants, window ledges with stools and outlets for laptops. And while you’re at it, replace long, rectangular tables with smaller circular ones. Circular tables help to create community. Students can see and hear one another. This shift is similar to the ones we are making in classrooms where desks in rows and columns are giving way to desks in clusters or U-shapes.

4. Offer non-dairy alternatives to milk.

Cow’s milk is a calorie-dense source of protein that has been part of the school meal program for generations. However, dairy products are not without issues. According to Our World In Data, milk from cows produces three times the greenhouse gasses and uses ten times the land as milk alternatives from oats, soy, and almonds. In addition, according to Boston Children’s Hospital, 80 percent of African-Americans and Native Americans, and over 90 percent of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant. Finally, cows routinely experience suffering through dairy production. They are inseminated annually, have their calves taken from them hours after giving birth, are forced to produce so much milk that 50% of them wind up with mastitis, a painful udder infection necessitating antibiotics in their feed, all before they are killed for hamburgers when their milk production wanes. Providing non-dairy alternatives is the right thing to do for our planet, for many of our kids, and for the cows themselves. While the USDA requires that cow’s milk be offered with all reimbursable meals, students are not required to take it. Work with your food service provider to find alternatives, recognizing that extra funding might be needed as tax-payer subsidies continue to make dairy milk the financially-expedient option.

5. Wash uneaten fruit from lunch and make it available for students later in the day.

Kids get hungry outside of lunchtime. Having healthy snacks available at the end of the day can be helpful, especially for students who may not always go home to a nutritious dinner or to dinner at all. Rather than throwing uneaten fruit away, collect it at lunchtime, wash it, and place it in a location where students who need it know where to find it.

6. Offer more plant-rich meals

This may be the most effective strategy to improve the health of our planet, of our students, and of animals. According to Project Drawdown, a more plant-rich diet is among the top three of nearly 100 solutions designed to reduce global warming. Not only do animals raised for meat consumption produce high quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but the land required to grow animal feed is the leading driver of deforestation. Burning forests to create arable land releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide while simultaneously destroying trees needed to absorb it. But this destructive feedback loop can be reversed. Providing students with delicious meals using plant-based proteins, such as beans, peas, high-protein grains, and soy, will reduce their consumption of meat, which will reduce the production of greenhouse gasses. According to research, it will also lower the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Schools can implement Meatless Mondays and Plant-Powered Fridays, as well as integrate more plant-based options including soups and salads into their daily menus. The goal is to provide students with choice and balance knowing that the diets they experience as children often continue into adulthood. 

Tomorrow, when you walk into your cafeteria, look at it with new eyes. See it as a place of learning, a place of connection, and a place of transformation. Lunch is often students’ favorite period of the day. Take the steps to make it a period that improves their health, the climate of their school, and the climate of their planet. 

Steve Cochrane retired as the superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools in 2020 and is now the executive director for the Institute for Humane Education. A graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Steve began his career as a university dean. He ultimately left the college campus to begin teaching fourth and fifth grade. He went on to be an elementary school principal, a middle school principal, an assistant superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction, and, ultimately, an award-winning superintendent. As the executive director for IHE, Steve believes we are at a pivotal point in history and that the future of  our planet rests with our young people and the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will gain through the transformation of our schools.