Learn how Leeds City Council uses sustainable food to help schools lower their carbon footprint through the meals they serve. Influencing others like schools to purchase green meals (follow the official Eatwell Guide on healthy eating and most menu options are plant-based, with less and better meat or fish as other options) is Action 44 of 50 climate actions councils can take.

08 Sep 2022

How is Action 44 tackling the climate crisis?

Food and farming is a significant contributor to the climate and ecological emergencies but doesn't always feature in councils’ Climate Action Plans. School food is important because this is the largest area of procurement for most councils, and an opportunity to help give children a better diet.

Leeds City Council has been helping schools lower their emissions, with a range of measures engaging school leaders and students.

Lower carbon meals

This includes working to halve the carbon footprint of the meals it serves by 2030. To do this, the council has committed to:

  • buy local, serve local – source food from producers and suppliers based in Yorkshire and the surrounding counties to cut food miles
  • ban air-freighted imports – procure no food transported by air
  • review menus to reduce meat and dairy and give catering staff the data to easily compare the carbon footprints of meals, and adjust them accordingly
  • establish a research partnership with the Consumer Data Research Centre at the University of Leeds, to better understand the impact of the food it serves.

The plan was announced in September 2021 and builds on progress made on influencing schools to switch to low-carbon menus. In January 2020, two meat-free days a week were made available in 182 primary schools served by the council’s provider, Catering Leeds.

The new Planet Friendly Menus use more plant protein and less meat on non-vegetarian days to reduce the proportion of meat in the meals. Vegan options have been expanded across the board and menus feature lots of seasonal fruit. Menus exceed the National School Food Standards and meet the Bronze Food For Life accreditation.

What impact has the project had?

Impacts of changing meals

A plant-based school meal generates, on average 75% less greenhouse gas emissions than a meat-based meal. Leeds primary schools can save up to 75 tonnes of carbon by making the meal switch.

The new vegetarian and vegan options have been well-received by children, contrary to the popular idea that children are averse to healthier, greener food. Due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, detailed monitoring and surveying have not been possible, but anecdotal feedback from headteachers and children has been positive so far.

Impacts of wider climate engagement with schools

Changing menus is only one element of extensive climate engagement with schools by Leeds City Council.

Changing travel to school

In 2020, the council installed 14 School Streets as a trial to support active travel to schools. In addition, over 10,000 young people receive Bikeability training each year and in 2021 the annual "Scootember" event, run by the council’s Influencing Travel Behaviour Team saw over 900 participants. Every September, schools receive funding for scooters and storage to encourage uptake of a fun but sustainable mode of school travel.

Decarbonising buildings

In March 2021, the council secured £25.3 million to decarbonise 38 publicly-owned buildings, including several schools, as part of the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. School kitchens will benefit from carbon savings that result from the council’s pledge to use 100% renewable electricity by 2025.

Uniform exchange

The council has also funded the Leeds Uniform Exchange, run by Zero Waste Leeds. The exchange recycles old school uniforms, saving parents money and reducing clothing waste. As of September 2021, 105 groups were up and running across the city.

What made this work?

Recognising multiple benefits

The original motivation for the revised menus was improving children’s health, but after the council declared a climate emergency in 2019 it realised that cutting meat and dairy would also help cut emissions.

Implementing healthier, more climate-friendly school menus was also necessary to help the council on its path to fulfilling two key pledges. The first is to become a Child Friendly City, where every child and young person can be healthy, happy and safe. The second is the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, to which Leeds and 62 other cities worldwide are signatories. This commits signatories to pioneering integrated food policies to drive positive food system change, putting food at the heart of sub-national climate emergency responses.

Support from residents

The meat-free idea received strong praise from many residents. During the 2019 Big Leeds Climate Conversation, almost nine out of ten respondents supported the proposal to reduce meat in school meals, so the council had a strong mandate to justify the decision and evidence to refer back to in the case of objections.

Co-design with schools

Catering Leeds took care to ensure that the new menus were well designed by taking a consultative approach, communicating the benefits and listening to schools’ concerns. Schoolchildren were invited to join discussions about the changes and voice their opinions. 95% of those surveyed said they would not mind having meat-free days at school to reduce their carbon footprints. A gradual introduction has also eased the switch in Leeds.

Expert input

Catering Leeds also consulted with ProVeg, an international food awareness organisation responsible for swapping 2.3 million meals per year in the UK to more climate-friendly alternatives.

What resources were needed?

No direct costs were incurred by the council or Catering Leeds when switching menus, as the change was implemented using existing resources.

Leeds City Council has appointed a sitting councillor as its very own dedicated Food Champion who will continue to lead on low-carbon food procurement across the council and its associated public sector organisations.

Lessons from Leeds

Allow time to bring schools on board

Leeds schools were not required to make the switch. Schools are able to choose a different provider or request a different menu from Catering Leeds should they wish. The new menus are not compulsory, only strongly recommended by the council. As a result, the time taken to convince each school to make the switch varies between schools and not all those serviced by Catering Leeds opted in. The pandemic also significantly disrupted the rollout of the new menu.

Balancing views and sticking to the plan

Despite being supported by many, removing meat options from schools is still a controversial move. The council faced criticism from a minority of residents to the changes and the removal of a meat choice on certain days (though this was not a consensus view). Parent concern must be anticipated and accounted for – other councils might consider seeking parent input to the consultation process.

Councils will be facing the opposite pressure from campaign groups. For example, in March 2021 Animal Rebellion launched its Plant Based Schools campaign which now has 40 groups around the country. Their demands are: for schools to have two fully vegetarian days a week (like Leeds) and to serve only plant-based meals at council events. They plan to target councils that have declared a climate emergency.

Leeds stuck to its plan which is an important part of tackling climate emissions, but it ensured that it engaged with schools and residents to bring as many of them as possible on board.

Going further within government guidelines

Current central government School Food Standards legally require schools to serve meat three days a week. They also have to serve oily fish at least once every 3 weeks, and dairy every day – both of which also impact the extent to which state schools can go further. To expand vegetarian and vegan-only options Leeds has taken the approach of reducing the amount of meat in its meat-based dishes which is within the guidelines, but councils should also be proactive in seeking changes to the government guidelines.

The School Food Standards do not apply to academies or free schools established between September 2010 and May 2014, so there may be more scope for councils to influence these schools to go further – although many work to these standards anyway.

Friends of the Earth, Sustain, Eating Better, and others have produced a Campaigner guide – Local authorities, food and climate which will help campaigners wishing to influence their council but should also be useful to councils wishing to include food as a key part of their action on climate.

“Sustainability is really important for so many reasons and it’s something we take seriously. Our food commitments will contribute to the council’s three strategic priorities for Leeds: facilitating inclusive growth by supporting local farmers and food producers; helping to improve the health and wellbeing of our food customers by improving the nutrition and quality of food served, and reducing our environmental impact in support of our ambition to become the first carbon-neutral city in the UK.”

Councillor Helen Hayden, Executive Member for Infrastructure and Climate at Leeds City Council.

Useful information

Friends of the Earth and the Eating Better alliance have produced resources for local councils and community groups, to guide them on how to serve and source healthier, more sustainable meals:

Related projects

We've found some examples of other council activity on this topic.

  • Enfield Council is committed to using only plant-based catering for events.
  • Bristol City Council has a 2030 goal that “people in Bristol will consume carbon neutral food and drink”.

Friends of the Earth view

As with many of these case studies, Leeds council has shown that action to cut climate emissions delivers other benefits, in this case, healthier diets for school children.

Leeds council’s proactive approach to working with schools and children is a good example of how early engagement can help ensure success even when the proposals are controversial.

More councils need to include food in their Climate Action Plans, from more plant-based options in schools to cutting food waste (Action 37 of the Climate Action Plan).

Friends of the Earth is showcasing specific examples of good practice in tackling climate change, but that doesn’t mean we endorse everything that a council is doing.  

This case study was produced by Ashden and Friends of the Earth.

Climate Action