Although harnessing renewable energy or enabling electric-vehicle transportation may be more visible efforts toward carbon neutrality, another area crucial to any push toward climate action is one that U-M students, staff and faculty encounter regularly: food.

Part of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, an analysis team of students and faculty is evaluating U-M’s food system, with an eye toward quantifying and reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to food production, procurement and waste.

The team is one of eight working for the commission, each tackling distinct but interdependent topics critical to the university’s broad carbon neutrality ambitions.

“On a global basis, the food system has a huge impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions,” said Andrew Jones, co-faculty lead of the analysis team and associate professor of nutritional sciences at the School of Public Health. “For individuals, what they eat and how they manage food has a big impact on their overall emissions. Similarly, an institution like the University of Michigan is going to have the same kind of calculus.”

Mapping the U-M food system is no small feat, especially because the university hosts an array of different individually managed units. Certain parts of the university, like MDining and Michigan Medicine Patient Food and Nutrition Services, procure and prepare their own food, while others, like Athletics, Michigan Medicine’s non-patient care component, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn, engage external vendors.

“One thing I want everyone to understand is just how complex our food ecosystem is across our three campuses, even just the Ann Arbor campus alone,” said Lesli Hoey, co-faculty lead of the team and associate professor of urban and regional planning at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

While the team’s work toward gauging the U-M food system’s complexity is still underway, two key areas have already emerged for possible interventions: procurement and food waste.

On the procurement side, the team is examining ways to reduce purchasing and consumption of meat — specifically beef — as it has an outsized contribution toward greenhouse gas emissions relative to plant-based protein.

Simple adjustments, like elevating plant-forward menus or offering dishes that traditionally have a plant-based food as the center of a plate, may be promising ways to reduce meat consumption while not limiting options.

Quantifying food waste is trickier, particularly because food and other compostable items tend to be mixed. During the 2019 fiscal year, U-M diverted more than 1,100 tons of waste through composting. Even if food waste could be separated from that total, it still would be difficult to track specific types of food and their relative volume in total waste.

Still, modifying both food procurement and better analyzing food waste are complementary processes.

“If we can understand more clearly what’s actually being wasted then that can feed back into procurement so that you don’t over-purchase food items that are ultimately wasted,” Hoey said. Simply put, the food team’s recommendations have the potential to not only reduce U-M greenhouse gas emissions, but also cut costs.

The team is convening a public session at the Local Food Summit on March 9 to share progress and gather ideas from local farmers and the broader community. It also is examining and interviewing comparable institutions to identify opportunities to reduce emissions.

Caroline Baloga, an undergraduate senior in international studies and environmental studies, has helped lead this effort by conducting a scan of 30-40 other universities and their respective dining services, and noting those that appeared to be particularly innovative. She is involved extensively with both the Campus Farm and the U-M Sustainable Food Program, and worked last summer with MDining and Student Life to create a low-carbon menu for catering.

Baloga said some universities incorporate efforts akin to Sustainable Mondays, an MDining program where red meat is reduced across campus once each week. They were not, however, tying those efforts to broader analysis or a larger carbon-emissions reduction effort.

“I saw other dining halls being plant-forward and reducing meat, but I didn’t really see anyone doing the type of research that we’re doing, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” she explains.

Nathalie Lambrecht, a Ph.D. candidate in nutritional sciences at Public Health and a student member of the team, noted that in addition to looking externally, the team is looking to learn from existing U-M research, expertise and efforts.

While Baloga brings a practitioner’s approach to the table, Lambrecht contributes her experience in applied research and long-held interest in sustainable diets and food systems. Her dissertation examines agricultural systems in West Africa and child undernutrition.

Building on an ongoing master’s project underway at the School for the Environment and Sustainability that Baloga assisted with, Lambrecht is looking to further analyze Sustainable Mondays, incorporating cost estimates and modeling potential greenhouse gas reductions that would result from replacing certain foods with plant-based alternatives.

“What I’ve seen from comparing Sustainable Mondays to another day at the dining hall is a pretty drastic greenhouse gas reduction,” Lambrecht said. “We’re hoping with further modeling to be able to say, ‘If you take out or reduce beef and replace it with plant-based protein, this is how much of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions you could have.’”

In developing its recommendations, the group is looking to another PCCN analysis team, covering campus culture and communication, for best practices on how to best engage students, staff, faculty and community members.

One message Lambrecht would like to get across is “the impact of small stages.”

“It doesn’t mean that you have to be vegan. It doesn’t mean you have to take out all sources of animal foods,” Lambrecht said. “Part of the work will involve how we communicate some of these actions that we’re trying to take so that students, faculty and staff feel empowered.”

“It’s important that U-M community members are educated and informed to know what switches they can make in their diet,” Baloga said. “It’s easy to feel that climate change is a big issue and that a simple choice of what you’re going to eat for lunch or dinner isn’t going to have much of an impact.”

The status of the food team’s efforts and work ahead will be detailed again in the commission’s second interim report, due this spring. The commission expects to deliver its final recommendations in late 2020.

Other internal analysis teams are evaluating biosequestration, building standards, campus culture and communication, commuting, energy consumption policies, external collaboration and university travel.

More than 50 students are adding their expertise to the analysis teams. Subgroups are also examining other topics, such as carbon accounting, vehicle fleet electrification and social justice considerations.

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