Paula Pineda

The environmental impact labels in dining halls mey be set to multiply after a student survey found that Yalies want to better understand carbon emissions associated with their food intake.

Gemma Shepherd ’20 and Addison Luck ’20 piloted the poster project this academic year to label the environmental impacts of different dining hall options. In two surveys conducted in October and February respectively, the students found that fellow undergraduates wanted more means of understanding the sustainability of their dining options. A total of 944 survey responses from diners showed that 86 percent of respondents want to continue to see environmental impact ratings, and 62 percent said that because of the posters, they had reconsidered eating foods with high environmental impact. Moving forward, the duo hopes to continue to expand the program.

“These results show that there is a serious desire and need among students for environmental education in our dining halls,” Luck wrote in an email to the News. “We believe that just as consumers have the right to know caloric information, allergens, and ingredients, they have the right to know what impact their food choices have on the planet.”

The initial test run of the project took place over three nights in October 2019 in the Pierson College dining hall, followed by another three nights in February. This most recent study took on a larger scale, with posters appearing in 10 residential colleges. In both pilots, the posters — placed near the serving bars in plain view — ranked each dinner entree by their cost in CO2 emissions. Students in the dining halls responded to a survey on their reactions to the posters by scanning QR codes placed on tables.

Luck and Shepherd aim to convince Yale Dining to provide environmental impact information full time in the dining halls using the data collected in the survey. They hope to move the information from posters to the existing dining hall placards that list ingredients, allergens and nutritional information for each entree. To improve the metrics for impact rankings, they would like to account for other environmental considerations — such as land usage, water usage and ecotoxicity — to tabulate a “food score” for each entree.

According to Luck, 100 servings of Yale’s lentil entree produce 6 to 11 kg of CO2(e), or carbon dioxide equivalent, while 100 servings of Yale’s lamb entree produces anywhere from 225 to 432 kg CO2(e). Luck said that because different foods can have significantly different environmental costs, consciousness about these choices are especially important. Associate professor of public health, psychiatry and epidemiology Marney White, one of the project’s faculty advisors, weighed in on how food labels can guide individuals’ choices.

“Providing people making food choices with increased information about those food choices tends to moderate and influence their behavior,” she said.

Shepherd and Luck originally had the idea for the initiative one year ago while they were both taking professor of environmental health and political science John Wargo’s class “Global Food Challenges.” Shepherd notes that the project was student-driven, but it also benefited from collaboration with faculty members — Wargo, White and Ezra Stiles fellow Grant Calderwood — and groups like Yale Hospitality and the Yale Office of Sustainability.

Despite the survey findings, Shepherd told the News that a minority of respondents were offended by the posters, reporting that the labels wrongfully made them feel guilty about their dining choices. But Shepherd stressed that the posters were not intended to attack respondents.

“We want to emphasize the fact that we are not trying to meat-shame or tell people what they can and cannot eat,” Shepherd said. “Rather, we are trying to educate students on the environmental impact of different foods, and let them use that information however they want.”

From her communications with Yale Dining, White said she does not foresee any obstacles in permanently adding food labels to the dining halls. And to the seniors leading this project, implementing food labels could have an impact beyond the walls of residential college dining halls.

“We believe that Yale can be a leader in this movement and can influence other universities, institutions, grocery stores and companies … to provide environmental impact labels,” Luck said.

Yale Hospitality Wellness Manager Allison Arnett acted as “point-person” to Shepherd and Luck, they said. The pair also consulted a variety of other groups and individuals aside from Yale Hospitality and Yale Office of Sustainability, including student groups like the Yale Animal Welfare Association and Sustainability Liaisons, and Pierson Dining Hall General Manager Kory Evasick.

Nicole Dirks | nicole.dirks@yale.edu