Food for the Future: Reducing our Carbon Footprint through Sustainable Purchasing

The burger you ate at Snar last night might have cost you only a swipe, but it cost the planet 14 kg in greenhouse gases. 14 kg! That is the weight of a coyote, a mid-size microwave, or 192,308 bees. How could a little meat disk put a coyote’s worth of gas into the atmosphere? 

Well, the answer has to do with cows’ digestive systems and methane, but that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. Food production is responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, and animal-based products comprise two-thirds of all agricultural GHG emissions, as they tend to be far more resource-intensive to produce than plant-based foods. Ruminants—like cattle, sheep, and buffalo—are the worst culprits. The beef in your hamburger, for example, was 20 times more land-intensive to produce and 20 times more GHG-intensive, per gram of protein, than beans. 

Fresh looking grain bowls filled with veggies and protein
PC Williams College Dining Services Instagram

So what does this mean for Williams? For an institution looking to make a dent in its GHG emissions, transitioning from carbon-intensive animal-based foods toward a more plant-based palate is a sensible goal to work toward. To that end, Williams has joined the likes of Harvard, Ikea, and the city of Milan (among many others) in signing onto the Cool Food Pledge (CFP), a global initiative managed by the World Resources Institute to reduce GHG emissions by helping institutions make the shift to plant-based foods and plant-rich menus. CFP’s overall goal is for its signatories to reduce their aggregate food-related emissions by 25% (relative to a 2015 baseline) by 2030. The idea is for member institutions to send their food purchasing data to the folks over at CFP, who analyze it for its carbon profile, identify areas in need of improvement, and then send back recommendations for dining interventions.

As a Sustainable Food Analyst for the ZC, my job – along with fellow co-interns, Brian Hernandez ’23 (in the fall) and Amelia Linton ’24 (this spring) is to gussy up the raw data into workable information for CFP. I’ve spent these past two semesters delving into the depths of Williams’ food purchases over the last three years, plodding my way through rows upon rows of kale and croissants and clams, slicing through thickets of French toast sticks, tamarind, tzatziki, and yams, sorting them one by one into categories and calculating the weights purchased.  Now, several months and thousands of Excel rows later, we are progressing into the next stages of the Pledge. As exhilarating as it is to comb through invoices line by line, the real excitement is just getting started as we gear up to work with CFP experts to think up delicious, innovative ways to enrich our menus with high-quality plant-based offerings, using CFP’s recent report on the College’s food purchase trends as a starting point. 

But how can we mess with people’s meat and expect to get away with it? 

Meatless Monday poster showing raw meat crossed out. Happening at Mission Park.
PC Williams Dining Services Instagram

One of the biggest potential hurdles to reducing the animal-based foods served in dining halls is student pushback. CFP’s comprehensive Playbook offers data-driven interventions that aim to help folks appreciate and embrace the culinary possibilities of plant-based foods by rethinking the approach to the meals, messaging, presentation, and language surrounding these foods. We hope to work closely with Dining Services in the near future to incorporate some of these interventions into our campus dining here at Williams, with a long-term objective of a 25% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of the college’s food by 2030 – from a baseline year of 2018.[1]

I look forward to continuing the work of transforming Williams’ food profile into a more climate-friendly one. The Cool Food Pledge is huge step in the right direction, and, in my opinion, a marker of Williams’ dedication to food sustainability. 

 -Zoe Kane


[1] Williams is using a 2018 fiscal year baseline because we have good data going back to 2018.