New Toolkit Helps Cities Leverage Plant-Based Proteins for Climate Action

Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Linda Breggin

Senior Attorney; Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

Cities have an outsized carbon footprint and are on the frontlines of adapting to climate change impacts. Rising to the challenge, many cities have developed climate action plans (CAP) that include measures that can be taken to achieve targeted greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions. Although food accounts for over 25 percent of household consumption-based emissions in U.S. cities, to date most municipal governments do not include food-related actions in their CAPs.  

Plant-based proteins have a significant role to play in reducing food-related emissions due to their comparatively low carbon footprint per gram of protein. Plant-based proteins include whole-food plant proteins (such as beans, legumes, and tofu), as well as meat analogs (such as a plant-based burger). For this reason, Project Drawdown has concluded that “plant-rich diets” have enormous climate mitigation potential and can “be adopted incrementally with small behavioral changes that together lead to globally significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Nationwide, institutional food service facilities purchase and serve about $120 billion worth of food annually, shaping the diets and health of some of America’s most vulnerable. Municipalities are therefore well positioned to take action on food-related emissions and can design menus to include plant-based proteins in municipal operations, public hospitals, school districts, shelters for the unhoused, and at municipal events. Municipalities can also help reduce community-wide emissions by leading by example and encouraging businesses, organizations, and the broader community to expand the availability of plant-based proteins. 

By including CAP actions that can increase the availability of plant-based proteins and engage the public on their benefits, municipalities can reduce food-related emissions while also realizing numerous co-benefits in the areas of public health, expanded consumer choice, environment, resilience and food security, equity, animal welfare, and cost savings.

For example, research indicates that plant-based proteins provide health benefits that can include the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. According to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a majority of Americans do not eat a healthy diet and have diets low in vegetables and fruits. In addition, most Americans do not satisfy the recommendation for plant-based protein intake and more than half of Americans do not meet the recommendation for nuts, seeds, and soy products in particular. As a result, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest that selecting plant-based proteins from the protein foods group “more often could help meet recommendations while still ensuring adequate protein consumption.”

New York City, led by the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, has been at the forefront of linking plant-based proteins to improved health. NYC now serves plant-based dishes as the default meal for inpatients at all 11 public hospitals. As of February 2023, plant-based defaults had reduced New York Health + Hospital emissions by 36 percent and are anticipated to reduce food costs by $1 million a year

ELI’s new Toolkit for Incorporating Plant-Based Protein Measures in Municipal Climate Action Plans provides municipal governments with the tools to reap the climate benefits and many co-benefits of plant-based proteins by adopting new actions to increase the availability of plant-based proteins and engage the public on their benefits. The Toolkit offers a menu of over 40 plant-based protein actions that municipalities can take to strengthen their climate action plans—or that municipalities can adopt on a standalone basis. Many of the Toolkit actions are accompanied by examples from cities that have taken the action, or a similar one, together with resources for implementation and outreach (e.g., social media posts, informational videos, recipes etc.). 

The plant-based protein actions fall into the following categories: 

  1. Emissions Targets and Tracking: Establishing food-related GHG emissions reduction targets and measuring progress.
  2. Increased Availability: Increasing the number of meals served or offered that contain plant-based proteins. 
  3. Municipal Procurement: Increasing the procurement of plant-based proteins by municipalities. 
  4. Public and Media Awareness: Educating and engaging the public on the climate benefits, as well as the many co-benefits, of plant-based proteins. 
  5. Leadership and Recognition: Recognizing and rewarding businesses and organizations that demonstrate leadership in increasing the availability of plant-based proteins and engaging the public on their benefits.
  6. Incentives, Funding, and Technical Assistance: Supporting businesses and organizations seeking to expand plant-based protein offerings and to facilitate access to plant-based proteins, especially in communities that lack adequate access. 
  7. Cooperation and Pledges: Endorsing international, national, and state initiatives that promote plant-based proteins. 

Within these categories, the Toolkit presents a variety of actions, ranging from more limited actions, e.g., require municipal events to serve one robust plant-based protein option, to more expansive actions, e.g., make plant-based proteins the default for meals served at all municipal facilities

The plant-based protein actions also range from those that focus on municipal operations, e.g., increase municipal procurement of plant-based proteins by a certain percentage, to those applicable to the broader community, e.g., launch a community-wide challenge for the public and provide educational resources and programming. Municipalities can adapt and incorporate into their CAPs the actions that best meet their needs while further consulting the Toolkit for best practices and guidance in addressing implementation challenges. 

In practice, cities of varying sizes and in geographical regions including many small to midsize cities across the country have already included plant-based protein actions in their CAPs and as part of their broader food systems sustainability efforts.  For instance, Carrboro, North Carolina, included in its CAP a recommendation to reduce GHG emissions from diets by 80% by 2030, and Flagstaff, Arizona and Iowa City, Iowa both adopted recommendations in their CAPs to expand consumer education on low-carbon food consumption and plant-rich diets. In the same vein, Cincinnati, Ohio Public Schools and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Public Schools are among the many local government institutions that have adopted the Good Food Purchasing Program policy, under which institutions serve and promote a plant-based entrée at every meal. Cities and towns can also leverage existing municipal food initiatives, including urban gardens, produce vouchers, as well as produce prescription programs, as an easy and cost-effective way to expand the availability of plant-based proteins. 

Learn more in the Toolkit for Incorporating Plant-Based Protein Measures in Municipal Climate Action Plans.