Written by Communications Associate, Jarea Fang
Food, in more ways than one, brings people together. Whether by eating, preparing, or shopping together, food is an integral part of society’s daily functions.
Changing our food habits, even modestly, allows individuals to make significant impacts on the environment. According to Project Drawdown’s Table of Solutions, which outlines plausible and economically realistic solutions to climate change, reducing food waste and favoring plant-rich diets are two of the most effective ways to mitigate global carbon emissions and keep the global temperature from rising above 2˚C by 2100.
One way that food waste causes greenhouse gas emissions comes from the abundance of methane gas emitted from landfills. Methane is a greenhouse gas whose warming effects can be 80 times more potent than CO2. According the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills. Solid-waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1% of these emissions in 2017.
Favoring a plant-rich diet reduces global greenhouse gas emissions by driving down demand for animal agriculture, which represents 14.5% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. A new UC Berkeley model suggests that phasing out animal agriculture over the next 15 years would have the same effect as a 68% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through the year 2100. Notably, Project Drawdown’s definition of a “plant-rich diet” doesn’t mean completely vegan or meat-free, which makes it more achievable than you might think. Just by reducing quantities of animal-based protein (particularly red meat) and prioritizing local produce can shift one’s diet to being plant-rich.
Many people have started taking note of this, from individuals to institutions. There has never been a better time than now to go pescatarian or try out Tofu Tuesdays. The Office of Sustainability (OOS) at WashU, for example, adopted a DefaultVeg dining policy this past August. According to Aamna Anwer, WashU’s sustainability coordinator, and valued member of the OOS community, it has been going rather well.
“Adopting a more plant-based diet is one of the highest impact actions we can collectively adopt to protect our environment,” she says. “As the Office of Sustainability, we want to lead by example with our new catered meal policy.”
What is DefaultVeg?
DefaultVeg – a program of the Better Food Foundation whose website contains recipes, resources, and an Ambassadors Program – is a movement to shift all meals in a plant-based direction. Its institutional arm Greener by Default was created to help more businesses, universities, conferences, and restaurants adopt a DefaultVeg dining policy.
The Office of Sustainability Catered Meal Policy, which outlines the new DefaultVeg dining policy at OOS, posits that a plant-based dining policy is inclusive, sustainable and economical. Inclusive, as most meals under these guidelines accommodate Halal, Kosher, seafood allergies, and vegetarians; sustainable, as serving plant-based meals by default increases their selection by an average of 60%, thus reducing food’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and water footprint by 24%; and economical, as research shows that restaurants that switch to a plant-based menu can increase revenues and significantly reduce overhead and administrative costs.
The DefaultVeg strategy at OOS specifies that office-sponsored meals be plant-based, allowing diners to opt in to meals with animal products when relevant. “It’s worth noting,” Aamna adds, “that this policy is not villainizing meat-eaters or taking all meat options away. The beauty of DefaultVeg is that it simply flips the script on ordering food, creating a plant-based default that people may have the option to add meat to, if they choose.” The new policy offers suggested guidelines for individual ordering, group ordering, buffet planning, and more. The policy even includes a suggested ratio of plant-based options to meat options when providing guests with a menu of ordering options.
The switch to eating plant-based was not a difficult decision or transition for OOS. Most members of the office, including Aamna, are well-practiced in the art of plant-based dining.
“My family and I already eat predominantly plant-based,” she shares. “We opt to eat animal-based proteins once a week. While none of the members of the staff in the office are fully vegan, we all acknowledge the importance of plant-based diets as a climate solution and frequently opt to eat plant-based meals as part of our regular routines.”
There’s an interesting psychology behind the idea of “opting” to eat meat, as defaults play a powerful and often invisible role in our lives. For example, by passing legislation to make organ donation upon death the default assumption – and requiring those who do not wish to donate their organs to “opt out” – many European countries boast high rates of organ donation that drive down the incentive for organ trafficking.
The same concept applies to default plant-based diets. By changing our default idea of a meal to be plant-based instead of meat-based, we can easily nudge ourselves to make better choices for our health and our planet.
DefaultVeg at WashU
Just as DefaultVeg was already familiar to members of the Office of Sustainability before the new meal policy, the concept of a plant-based diet is not new to WashU. Programs like Green Monday, Ever Green Challenge, or even the ever-customizable meals served by WashU Dining Services demonstrates our university’s commitment to sustainability and inclusivity.
“Adopting a DefaultVeg policy is the most inclusive way to feed a group of people. When the default is plant-based, there are no awkward moments where you realize you don’t have something to offer someone,” says Aamna, who is Muslim and grew up with meat restrictions. “Having been on the receiving end of such interactions from a very young age, it’s such a relief when I know I don’t really have to think before taking food.”
Another interesting facet of the Office of Sustainability Catered Meal Policy is that its focus on a DefaultVeg dining policy not only prioritizes soil regeneration and locally-grown ingredients, but also BIPOC- and women-owned producers. Considering that the effects of climate change disproportionately harm the most minoritized and vulnerable populations in the world, it is even more vital that we vote with our money and opt to cater from such enterprises.
Excerpted from the Office of Sustainability’s Commitment to Racial Equity and Justice page: Structural and systemic racism and patriarchal ideology are found at the root of today’s intersectional crises facing humanity. These crises manifest as income inequality, healthcare inequality, underfunded schools, mass incarceration and environmental injustice in communities of color. The climate crisis cannot be solved without addressing the rampant inequality issues facing our society. Sustainability cannot be achieved without striving for justice.
Even with all these different priorities, there is no shortage of plant-rich dining establishments to cater from, despite what one might think. Aamna promises that if one were to mindfully adopt a plant-based diet, they would not be in danger of malnutrition or be at the mercy of bland food.
“Our business manager, Michelle Patterson, puts a lot of thought into where we cater our meals by ensuring plant-based options also cater to any other food restrictions that may be present amongst our diners. We’ve had a pretty exciting array of dining options at our recent events!”
Among Aamna’s personal favorite restaurants are Lona’s Lil Eats, Seedz Café, SweetArt, Terror Tacos, and more.
In addition to the WashU Office of Sustainability, plant-forward policies can be found all over the country and the world. Both San Diego and Washington D.C. have passed local legislation targeting food-related emissions, and fast-food restaurants have started introducing meat-substitute options to their menus. Most recently, Greener by Default worked closely with New York City Health + Hospitals to launch DefaultVeg menus for all NYC hospital patients, specifically targeting patient health by reducing the cholesterol and saturated fat content while increasing fibers and micronutrients.
The Office of Sustainability invites you to explore DefaultVeg with us. Lettuce care for the earth together!
- The Office of Sustainability Catered Meal Policy
- Commitment to Racial Equity & Justice
- Making the Best Organic Food Decisions
- Resources for Green Offices
- Resources for Green Events
- Food: Vision & Progress
- DefaultVeg homepage
- Methane Emissions are Driving Climate Change, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)