Measuring the Food Services Footprint

Sustainability is an increasingly important focus for leading U.S. colleges and universities, and many find that meeting campus sustainability commitments means engaging various campus departments, including the administration and dining services.

An organization with a mission to accelerate the transition to sustainable communities through climate mitigation, adaptation planning, and effective climate policies, Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP) works collaboratively with campuses, communities, and corporations to pioneer and scale-up innovative solutions aimed at reducing carbon emissions and preparing for climate change. CA-CP also works to build support for environmentally effective and economically efficient national climate policies.

Charting Food Services Emissions

CA-CP, in partnership with ARAMARK, has helped streamline schools’ efforts to quantify the environmental effects related to food on North American college campuses by researching its impact from growing, producing, transporting, preparing, and disposal. This research has led to Clean Air-Cool Planet releasing a beta version of “CHEFS” — Charting Emissions through Food Services — which is now publicly available online at no cost at

CHEFS is designed to be used by college and universities, businesses, science centers and museums, national parks, hospitals, sports arenas and convention centers, or any other institution with dining facilities or concessions. In 2009, 12 U.S. colleges (Arizona State University, Boston University, Grand Valley State University, Furman University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, The Evergreen State College, University of Florida, University of New Hampshire, Vassar College, Wesley College, and Yale University) piloted a CHEFS prototype. The schools were asked to gather information about farming methods, geographic source, processing needs, and overall supply chain of 100 of the most commonly served menu items on their campuses. According to the findings:
the “footprint” of campus dining services is substantial,
  • “food miles”— the distance which food had to travel to reach campus — is not necessarily the most significant driver 
of food’s ecological impact, and
food supply chains are broad and complex.
Bringing the Picture Into Focus
The 2009 CHEFS pilot program confirmed the significance of food in its relation to a campus’s carbon footprint. For example, at one of the pilot schools, the annual emissions equivalent from producing only 26 food products (out of an estimated 800-1,000 purchased) equaled 2.5 percent of the total annual emissions from campus-wide operations.

“The CHEFS tool represents Clean Air-Cool Planet’s approach to pragmatic, data-driven carbon management. Our goal is to help everyone on campus — from the students to the dining managers — move beyond buzzwords like “local” or “organic” to objectively understand and demonstrate the impacts of their choices,” says Adam Markham, CEO of Clean Air-Cool Planet.

Results of the 2009 pilot project enabled CA-CP to launch the new, publicly available beta version of the free CHEFS tool, and helped the participating pilot schools to understand the impact of their dining service operations in the context of their overall carbon management efforts. Users of CHEFS will enter quantities of raw ingredients and processed foods. The data at the core of the CHEFS beta encompasses impacts from the agricultural phase to its arrival on campus. CHEFS will also analyze on-campus energy and waste data to return accurate and comprehensive greenhouse gas impacts for all phases of the life cycle.

More Testing Is on the Way
More schools are scheduled to put CHEFS to the test in 2012. The unique power of the CHEFS tool, especially as CA-CP’s database of products grows, is to highlight the differences between specific food items. For example, it is known that growing and delivering a pound of carrots produces about six times more greenhouse gas emissions than a pound of tomatoes, while onions and potatoes yield the smallest footprints.

Once the CHEFS beta tool has been fully tested, CHEFS will be integrated with CA-CP’s Campus Carbon Calculator, a greenhouse gas calculator used at more than 2,000 educational institutions across North America. The Campus Carbon Calculator is the inventory tool of record for the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).
A menu labeling system is also in development to empower campuses to easily apply CHEFS data to their everyday operations and educate users in dining halls to make healthy choices for themselves and for the planet.

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