Sustainability & Food: Moving Forward

by Gordon L. and Josh O., Global Development Studies students

We have been exploring the topic of sustainable food throughout the course of the semester as part of our Global Development Studies course project. Our starting point was the following statement:

"In order to explore, understand, and implement sustainable plant-based food options in our community, we need to shatter common preconceptions regarding sustainable options and create incentives to push community members to investigate alternatives."

As such, we hoped to achieve our goals through two main avenues. First, we wanted to work with Aramark, the school's catering company, to understand their system and expand menu options that could be less impactful on the environment. Second, we wanted to help promote sustainable plant-based foods around campus and see if we could help implement content about this topic into the school curriculum.

The exigence for creating this project came when we went through our unit on Food and Farming in the first semester. Currently, the global trends of food production and consumption are jeopardizing the future of our planet; a notable part of the problem is connected to issues with consuming meat, particularly red meat. Understanding the environmental impacts of the conventional meat industry is fundamental to increasing awareness and consciousness – and further prompting action.

To put this in perspective, one McDonald’s Quarter Pounder burger takes approximately 660 gallons of water to produce, one pound of commercial beef requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce, a dozen eggs takes 477 gallons of water to produce, one gallon of milk takes upwards of 1000 gallons of water to produce, and cheese requires 900 million gallons of water to produce. Additionally, animal agriculture utilizes more than 45 billion gallons of water – about 1⁄3 of all global freshwater – and requires more than 135 billion pounds of feed per year. Furthermore, the environmental consequences of the current agriculture industry is evident – 18% to 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by livestock and monocrop agriculture; 91% of the deforestation in the Amazon is a direct result of clear-cutting for grazing lands; and 45% of the earth’s inhabitable lands are dedicated to agriculture.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If current population and consumption patterns continue, it will not be feasible to sustain the world's people. To prevent that from happening, our diets must change drastically, which is why we chose to undertake this project.

A highlight of our work has undoubtedly been partnering with Aramark and school administrators to improve both the taste and the sustainability of the food options served at our school. One event we organized with the school's catering company was the plant-based meat alternative cooking show. On Thursday, April 15, Aramark unveiled a new partner in Beyond Meat as Nell Ren – regional marketing manager for Beyond Meat in China – visited Concordia to introduce the partnership. About a dozen other high-school students and a few staff members were invited to us in a cooking show co-hosted by Aramark and Beyond Meat. Mrs. Ren gave a detailed presentation pertaining to plant-based meat as a global trend. She engaged the students in the production processes, nutritional value and benefits, and market prospects both internationally and within China.

The stars of the show, though, were the Beyond Burger and curry tofu with crispy Beyond mince that Stanley, Aramark's head chef at Concordia, cooked while Ms. Ren presented. Everyone could hear the sizzle of the patty and the aroma of the vegetables as he skillfully maneuvered around the stove. Everybody present thoroughly enjoyed the dishes and refreshments provided. Afterwards, many of the seniors stayed behind and bombarded Nell with questions about the alternative meat industry. Through the discourse that followed, we learned a lot more about the technology behind the product, competitors, challenges for the company, plans for expansion, and even got a sneak preview at several other Beyond items currently in the incubator.

Aramark has been engaging with companies like Beyond Meat over the past months to add plant-based alternatives to their menus for the Shanghai region. Currently, Aramark is preparing for a full launch of Beyond Meat dishes for the 2021-2022 school year after further gauging interest for sustainable options in our Concordia community. In line with that plan and as a celebration of Earth Day, April 22nd and 23rd were two prototype days during which Aramark served several dishes prepared with Beyond as an ingredient.

Although the addition of Beyond into the Concordia cafeteria will mean the occasional costly lunch, Mr. Wang – director of Aramark at Concordia – states that “the dishes will be higher quality.” For environmentally-conscious students like us at Concordia, we should strive to take steps to reduce our carbon footprints in order to play our individual role in confronting climate change and being conscious of what we eat is one way to do so. The 20-30% increase in the price tag is, quite frankly, nothing compared to the environmental cost of consuming meat at our current rates.

To further increase the student awareness regarding the topic of sustainable diets and meat alternatives, we identified one key curriculum area where we could partner with teachers. Currently, the Freshmen Health curriculum is structured to educate students about various aspects of health such as sleep and exercise, as well as teach students about the importance of mental health. Although a tiny portion of the course is focussed on informing students about the importance of a healthy diet, the course does not include material that explores the dark realities of the conventional meat industry. As a result, students miss a huge opportunity to learn about an integral aspect of life – their personal food choices.

We recognized that Freshmen Health is one of the few classes in the earlier years of high school that is suitable for such topics to be discussed and explored. Thus, our second half of the project revolved around collaborating with Ms. Klein, a Health teacher, about integrating a mini-unit about agriculture, land use and meat alternatives.

Specifically, we worked closely with Ms. Klein to create an interactive and fun three-class experience in which students will have the opportunity to learn about how food connects to the environment.

Our main goal for this aspect of our project is to inspire personal reflection so students might better understand the complex problems that our species faces. If just a handful of people can learn ways in which they can become better stewards of the world through consuming less meat, the world may be in better hands.

In addition to our cooperation with Aramark and work to enhance the school curriculum, we have also tried to understand the community's thoughts and opinions about plant-based products. For instance, we went to restaurants in the Jinqiao area that serve plant-based meats such as Beyond and Zrou and wrote a food review for those items. We tried quesadillas and burgers at Big Bamboo, burritos at Pistolera, and even the vegetarian burger from Burger King. Josh particularly liked that burger, commenting that there was "no way that doesn't have meat in it." We also interviewed students and staff members at school about their dietary habits, understanding of the environmental repercussions of meat, awareness of plant-based alternatives, as well as potential concerns such as nutritional value.

We hope our Global Development Studies project can help Concordians consider the role of sustainable food systems for a better future for our planet. 

Gordon and Josh completed this project for their semester 2 service learning/design thinking experience in Applied Learning Global Development Studies.