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A new study shows why school lunches may be the key to changing our food systems worldwide: 'We get to a place where we don't need a ban'

"[It is] about supporting and lifting the new, to help [it] be as competitive and attractive as possible."

School lunches

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School lunches have seen plant-based additions in recent years to make them healthier for students. The latest push? Make the meals healthier for the planet, too.

According to a recent report from sustainability consultancy group Systemiq, school lunches can play a big part in slowing planet-heating gases — especially if they're plant-based.

The report, entitled The Breakthrough Effect: How Tipping Points Can Accelerate Net Zero, was produced in partnership with the University of Exeter, U.K. and was presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month.

It looks at plant-based food as a "super leverage point" that can bring big changes to the food system. While it focused on the U.K. and EU, the findings would benefit the U.S., too. There are more than 50 million students in public schools in the U.S. according to the most recent data.

"Favoring alternative proteins in public procurement policies globally could help to bring forward tipping points in their adoption," reads the report. "Using public institutions (e.g., government offices, hospitals, prisons, schools) to purchase alternative proteins in large quantities would rapidly increase demand and help producers to achieve economies of scale, thereby lowering costs."

Offering more plant-based protein such as vegan burgers and nuggets, and also beans and soy products like tofu could help to "shift social norms around meat consumption," reads the report. California, for example, recently earmarked $700 million to help schools transition to more plant-based protein.

The shift would help to reduce heat-trapping gases and pollution generated by factory farms which produce most of the meat on the planet. Livestock farming accounts for 8% of these gases, the report notes.

"Shifting public procurement would not require significant additional government expenditure but can instead focus on redirecting existing budgets away from animal proteins and towards alternative proteins," the report explains. "Nor would it require significant technological advances, given plant-based proteins are already well advanced technologically."

And the report says that the scale and pace of the economic transitions required to meet climate change goals "are unprecedented in human history." 

According to Mark Meldrum from Systemiq and co-author of the report, none of the recommended shifts are about banning the old ways. 

"They are about supporting and lifting the new, to help them be as competitive and attractive as possible," he says. "So we get to a place where we don't need a ban, because everyone wants the new thing anyway."

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