Healthier and more sustainable school meals
SUSTAINMEALS – Sustainable School Meals is a project developed to promote a large-scale shift towards more healthy and sustainable plant-based meals. The project focused on individual and shared context-based variables to encourage that transition. Targeting catering services of public schools, the project took advantage of a parliamentary approval that mandates the inclusion of plant-based meals in school catering. The project was carried out in two phases: first, mapping barriers and facilitators of transition; then, designing an evidence-based toolkit for the transition. The project is based on the research team’s background findings in meat consumption or substitution, plant-based diets, behavioral change, food policy, and sustainability. Results may inform various fields and audiences interested in promoting sustainable living and health improvements through dietary choices.
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Eating habits are complex and shaped by various factors, including social surroundings, food availability and its organizational structure, personal taste, and familiarity with certain foods. To promote a shift towards healthier and more sustainable food systems, a coordinated effort is needed from various entities, including government agencies, civil society, health and environmental organizations, and market actors. This effort should be guided by a comprehensive research program that provides a unified understanding of how to decrease meat consumption and promote plant-based diets.
This is especially critical when considering the barriers to adopting more plant-based diets and that many people are unwilling to give up meat, despite recognizing the benefits of a more plant-based diet. To address this challenge, the project SUSTAINMEALS – Sustainable School Meals’ approach considered both individual factors and broader societal factors by combining the expertise of professionals from the fields of Psychology and Sociology in topics ranging from sensory and emotional determinants of food preference to food security.
SUSTAINMEALS was conducted at ICS-ULisboa in partnership with Iscte-University Institute of Lisbon and was supported by Programa Lisboa 2020, Portugal 2020, and the European Regional Development Fund (Lisboa-01-0145-FEDER-029348), and by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (PTDC/PSI-GER/29348/2017).
Approach and Results
The SUSTAINMEALS project had two primary goals. The first was to increase understanding of how to encourage consumers and empower providers in large-scale catering/meal settings to adopt healthier and more sustainable plant-based meals. The second was to design and evaluate an evidence-based toolkit to implement this knowledge.
In pursuit of these objectives, the project targeted the catering services of public schools in Portugal. It followed a parliamentary approval that made the inclusion of plant-based meals in school catering services mandatory. Over two phases, the project developed a methodological framework to identify barriers and facilitators of the transition, an intervention design tool to improve service capability, consumer choice, acceptance, and positive appraisal of plant-based meals.
SUSTAINMEALS drew on the expertise and previous research of the team, which has been working on complementary approaches to studying meat consumption/substitution, plant-based diets, behavioral change interventions for health and eating habits, and food policy and consumption practices with a focus on sustainability and dietary shifts.
In a systematic review of the literature, the team of SUSTAINMEALS explored the current evidence behind reducing meat consumption and following plant-based diets and reflected on future directions. The authors highlight that the literature on this topic is fragmented, with no overarching framework, limiting the ability to respond to critical health and environmental challenges. They address this problem by mapping relevant barriers and facilitators to dietary transitions and integrating them into an overarching theoretical framework by identifying variables in three domains: capability, opportunity, and motivation. The barriers in the capability domain include difficulty in obtaining practical and reliable information, acquiring new skills and competencies, and sensitivity to bitter tastes. In the opportunity domain, the barriers include social representations of meat as a central protein, social prejudice against plant-based diets, and lack of social support. In the motivation domain, the barriers include eating meat frequently and holding positive attitudes and beliefs towards meat consumption. The overall evidence suggests that health, sustainability, and animal ethics motivations, as well as convenience, familiarity, and positive taste experiences with plant-based meals, are key enablers/facilitators. It is highlighted that as more evidence becomes available, selecting appropriate policy options and delivery modes to shape and sustain these dietary transitions will be possible. One important conclusion is that there is a clear need for further research on the capability and opportunity domains, as these are severely under-represented compared to the motivation domain. The review also found that sociodemographic variables such as gender, age, and education are relevant to the topic and need to be considered in future research.
Additionally, the SUSTAINMEALS team collected data from multiple stakeholders at different levels of influence in the school meals system (from end-consumers to food providers, market actors, civil society organizations, and policy and decision-makers), on their perspectives on the transition to healthier and more sustainable food provision in schools. Their conclusions point to three main pathways for enabling sustainable food transitions in public schools: (1) Levering orientations toward sustainable consumption; (2) Optimizing and increasing the plant-based meal offer; and (3) Mobilizing local communities and society as a whole.
Extending the results of the previous study, another study from the SUSTAINMEALS team looked into sustainable food transitions in schools and found that social and motivational factors may help explain parents’ and teachers’ support for initiatives to promote increased plant-based eating in schools. Teachers’ attitudes toward plant-based meals, and their attachment to meat consumption, were linked with their support for these initiatives. Additionally, economic factors, such as the perceived cost of plant-based meals for service providers, were relevant to explain parents’ policy support. Parents were more supportive when they perceived those costs to be higher, possibly because a higher cost was seen as indicating a higher value too. The paper concluded that social and motivational factors are crucial to understanding the current eating practices and informing future policies to promote school dietary transitions.
Further input comes from an article published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research, highlighting the multisectoral impact of school meals on health and sustainability, economy, social protection, and community welfare. It proposes using the Systemic Regeneration Wheel, arguing that it best depicts this synergistic perspective on the school meal system. This conceptual framework reinforces dialogue among relevant stakeholders and the mobilization of multiple sectors of society as appropriate steps for addressing the current need for a sustainable food transition.
Taking their research results and previous evidence, the SUSTAINMEALS team developed a freely available online toolkit (for now only available in Portuguese). It is aimed at catering venue stakeholders who seek to create and implement a transition plan for healthier and more sustainable eating in their dining contexts. This toolkit explains different variables when transitioning to healthier and more sustainable diets, such as the role of context, but also proposes intervention activities directly targeting behaviors (e.g., incentives, rewards, or gamification), social contexts (e.g., modelling, active participation), and making use of educational approaches (e.g., knowledge and skills, mentorship). Notably, it comprises a diagnostic tool and action plans so that any institution resorting to the toolkit can implement these strategies.
The toolkit was also informed by a scoping review conducted by the SUSTAINMEALS team which assessed the literature to map interventions promoting dietary change in collective meal contexts across multiple settings, target groups, and target behaviors.
The scoping review was also submitted to a scientific journal and is currently undergoing peer review. Additionally, the toolkit and the scoping review guided a short-term intervention conducted in a canteen unit of a Portuguese university, which was effective in promoting increased plant-based meal choices in this collective meal context – although this improvement was not entirely sustained after the intervention. The results of this field study were also recently submitted for peer review in a scientific journal.
The project resulted in meaningful outcomes that improved understanding of developing differentiated but integrated approaches to promote large-scale shifts in practices and informed various fields and audiences interested in promoting sustainable living and improving health through dietary choices. The available toolkit may serve as a starting point to promote healthier and more sustainable eating habits within schools and, consequently, in future generations.
Implications and Recommendations
The SUSTAINMEALS’ contributions to literature are evident. For example, the literature review conducted as part of the project has been highly cited, indicating its relevance for current research on the topic of the sustainability transition. In addition, it has also been cited in policy reports, including the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations, a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and reports from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) and the Norwegian Environment Agency.
According to the project coordinator, João Graça,
“our toolkit is a capacity tool that is ready to use, so the next step would involve its dissemination among the interested parties”.
He highlights the importance of strengthening partnerships between catering venues and specialist teams to enhance the toolkit’s capabilities. Considering its systemic approach, João Graça recommends a broad involvement of different actors among the different communities where the toolkit is applied.
Besides the toolkit, the SUSTAINMEALS team has disseminated the project and its potential impacts on society. For example, the project was featured in public events like the 2019 European Researchers’ Night and several pieces in the national media, such as radio programs (Prova Oral na Antena 3), the podcast Os Desafios da Alimentação Sustentável (dedicated to the challenges of a sustainable diet), and national newspapers (Público). Finally, another workstream has been conducted with municipalities to assess barriers and facilitators to promoting the transition towards more healthy and sustainable eating habits.
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