By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Back to school season is officially upon us! As the scramble to check if school uniforms still fit and pencil cases are properly stocked ensues, thoughts will also be turning to school lunches. With over half of primary school children in the UK taking a packed lunch to school, that’s a lot of boxes for parents and guardians to fill.

Food is a complex issue, tied to socio-economics, health and, as is becoming increasingly pertinent, the environment. As damning reports emerge on the catastrophic impacts the climate crisis is having around the world, we should all be taking steps to reduce our emissions, and thinking about the food we put in our supermarket trolleys and children’s lunchboxes is a great place to start.

In a recent Guardian article, Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s top advisor on food, said that to avoid climate breakdown we must reduce our meat intake. Among other issues, large areas of agricultural land are used to grow crops to feed the animals we eat; and, Dimbleby states, that it is an inefficient use of land, and an ecologically unsustainable one.

Not only that, but meat sourced from outside of the UK is almost certainly going to have a bigger impact on carbon emissions than that produced in the UK. So, the choices we make in the supermarket can have knock-on effects we might not even be aware of.

Transitioning to a plant-based diet is one of the ways we can reduce our meat intake, but it’s a big lifestyle shift from eating animal products, and a whole new style of cooking to adjust to. For parents and guardians with hungry mouths to feed, it could be even more taxing. But we don’t need to fully transition to veganism or even vegetarianism to make a difference, just one meat-free meal a day could reduce our carbon emissions. And why not make that meal lunch?

Meat-free meals

Switching the food in children’s lunchboxes to vegetarian or plant-based options a few days a week, if not all, has a multitude of benefits. In one academic year, a child will eat around 190 school lunches, giving ample opportunity to reduce the number of meat-based products they are eating. 

Making this switch could be a great opportunity to discuss with children how what we choose to eat can impact the planet. A recent Children’s People and Nature Survey found that 81% of 8-15 year-olds said they want to do more to look after the environment; there is an appetite for action. Explaining to children and young people the many environmental issues caused by producing meat might help up the appeal of vegetarian alternatives.

It may also go some way to soothing eco-anxiety, which a landmark survey found 95% of young people experience to some degree. We explored eco-anxiety in a previous blog and found that taking action towards protecting the environment can help ward off feelings of hopelessness. 

A cheaper choice

No conversation about food choices can legitimately be had without considering the financial implications. As discussed in our recent blog about the free schools meals programme, many families are struggling to afford enough food, and with an unfolding cost of living crisis, the numbers are set to increase. Happily for shoppers and the environment, reducing meat consumption is a money-saving move. A study by Oxford University found that in several countries, including the UK, a vegetarian diet reduces costs by between 17 and 27%. Even if only applied to school lunches, that can make a significant difference to the weekly food bill.

Making connections, making changes

The connection between food choices and the environment is a great discussion point to focus on in school. British Science Week is appearing over the horizon, coming up on 10-19 March 2023, and with this year’s theme being ‘Connections’, it presents a perfect opportunity to explore this topic. But there’s no need to wait until next year, the British Science Week 2022 activity packs are still available to download free, and in them you’ll find some activities on sustainable eating. The primary pack includes an activity that asks children to think about how they would make a planet-friendly burger, introducing the idea of food having an environmental footprint. Older children can find ‘Conscious consumers’ in the secondary pack, which encourages them to research the impact our food choices have on the planet.  

The climate change calculator from the BBC is a terrific interactive tool which allows children and young people to start exploring the impacts of specific foods.

The climate crisis will not fix itself; it is the result of human activity and can only be slowed by human action to reduce emissions. Today’s children and young people will need to adapt to the changing climate as they grow up, and eventually lead sustainable innovations. Introducing the idea of choosing eco-friendly options from a young age not only lets them start playing their part in protecting the planet today, it lays the foundation for their future.