Donate Donate

Sustainable Food Pathway

sustainable food pathway iconScientists say the impacts of climate change—higher temperatures, extreme weather, drought, increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and sea level rise—threaten to decrease the quantity and jeopardize the quality of our food supplies. Climate change will not only affect crop yields, but impact meat production, fisheries, and other fundamental aspects of our food supply. As most students have little to no idea where their food comes from; how it is grown, harvested, and processed; and the associated environmental impacts, it is critical to provide them a pathway to build the knowledge and skills to participate in and advocate for sustainable food systems.

There are tremendous opportunities for schools to explore and implement innovative programs focused on food sustainability. Schools can provide healthier food choices, reduce their environmental footprint, support their local economies, and at the same time enhance the curriculum with engaging and interdisciplinary food‐related content. A focus on food sustainability can help make nutritious, fresh, local, and whole foods a part of the culture both within your school and the broader community.

Students holding food from their garden

Fast Facts

  • More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket.
  • More than 30 million children in the United States eat a school lunch five days a week, 180 days a year. Yet many school lunches are poor quality and highly processed, contributing to childhood obesity, diabetes, reduced attention spans, and poor grades.
  • According to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, 42 percent of the districts surveyed participate in farm-to-school activities.
  • According to the 2018 Global Food Index, out of 113 countries, the U.S. ranks 46th in natural resources and resilience, assessing a country's exposure to the impacts climate change; its susceptibility to natural resource risks; and how the country is adapting to these risks.
  • About 10 percent of the crops grown in the world’s major food production regions are irrigated with groundwater that is non-renewable. In other words, aquifers are being drained faster than they’re refilling.

Following the Framework

Utilize the Seven Step Framework to complete your pathway.

Step 1: Form an Eco-Action Team

The Eco-Action Team is the driving force behind Eco-Schools USA. Ideally, your Eco-Action Team should be representative of the whole school community—including people beyond the school walls, such as facilities staff, board members, and members of the greater community. Eco-Schools USA has developed a worksheet to help guide the development of this team.

Step 2: Conduct an Environmental Audit

The Environmental Checklist is an essential tool for understanding the current environmental situation in your school. It provides the basis for your Eco-Action Plan. Eco-Schools USA has developed an activity to get your students started.

In addition to the optional Environmental Checklist, pathway-specific audits allow teams to utilize a pathway-specific lens to dive deeper into problems and solutions, and provide the basis for the team’s Eco-Action Plan.

Sustainable Food Audit

Step 3: Create an Eco-Action Plan

The action plan follows as the result of analysis and conclusions drawn from the Environmental Audit and sets forth a series of goals, actions, and a timeline for achieving environmental improvements.

1. To get started, preview the sample action plan for the Sustainable Food pathway. This example is designed to be a springboard to developing the team’s own action plan.

2. Use the blank action plan to develop the team’s vision.

Sample Action Plan | Blank Action Plan

Step 4: Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic elements of the action plan, helping to check progress toward goals, make adjustments for greater success, and validate that actions are making an impact.

Step 5: Link to Existing Curriculum

Enrich your classroom curriculum with Eco-Schools projects and activities.

Step 6: Involve the Community

Communities are made up of diverse perspectives. When students consistently and authentically work to include community members from all walks of life, not just the school community, they are gaining access to dynamic networks whose end goals are the same, making their place in this world happier and healthier.

Step 7: Create an Eco-Code

The Eco-Code is the school’s mission statement and should demonstrate—in a positive, inclusive, and imaginative way—the whole school’s commitment to improving their environmental performance.

Step 1: Form an Eco-Action Team

The Eco-Action Team is the driving force behind Eco-Schools USA. Ideally, your Eco-Action Team should be representative of the whole school community—including people beyond the school walls, such as facilities staff, board members, and members of the greater community. Eco-Schools USA has developed a worksheet to help guide the development of this team.

Step 2: Conduct an Environmental Audit

The Environmental Checklist is an essential tool for understanding the current environmental situation in your school. It provides the basis for your Eco-Action Plan. Eco-Schools USA has developed an activity to get your students started.

In addition to the optional Environmental Checklist, pathway-specific audits allow teams to utilize a pathway-specific lens to dive deeper into problems and solutions, and provide the basis for the team’s Eco-Action Plan.

Sustainable Food Audit

Step 3: Create an Eco-Action Plan

The action plan follows as the result of analysis and conclusions drawn from the Environmental Audit and sets forth a series of goals, actions, and a timeline for achieving environmental improvements.

1. To get started, preview the sample action plan for the Sustainable Food pathway. This example is designed to be a springboard to developing the team’s own action plan.

2. Use the blank action plan to develop the team’s vision.

Sample Action Plan | Blank Action Plan

Step 4: Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic elements of the action plan, helping to check progress toward goals, make adjustments for greater success, and validate that actions are making an impact.

Step 5: Link to Existing Curriculum

Enrich your classroom curriculum with Eco-Schools projects and activities.

Step 6: Involve the Community

Communities are made up of diverse perspectives. When students consistently and authentically work to include community members from all walks of life, not just the school community, they are gaining access to dynamic networks whose end goals are the same, making their place in this world happier and healthier.

Step 7: Create an Eco-Code

The Eco-Code is the school’s mission statement and should demonstrate—in a positive, inclusive, and imaginative way—the whole school’s commitment to improving their environmental performance.

Sustainable Development Goals

goal 2 - zero hunger
goal 3 - good health and well-being
goal 4 - quality education
Goal 10 - reduced inequalities
Goal 11 - Sustainable cities and communities
goal 12 - responsible consumption and production
goal 16 - peace, justice, and strong institutions
goal 17 - partnerships for the goals

Top 10 Tips for School Food Sustainability

  • Review the Chef Ann Foundation's "What You Need to Know about School Lunch" for a big-picture view of how school food works.
  • Coordinate a tour of the school kitchen and talk to cafeteria staff. Consider asking them to join the Eco-Action Team.
  • Learn about your school district's wellness policy. The Center for Ecoliteracy has a Model Wellness Policy Guide.

  • When possible, replace processed foods with fresh.
  • When possible, look into providing organic food.
  • Investigate the possibility of connecting with area farms and incorporating local food into your cafeteria. The Farm to School Network is a great resource.
  • Learn about ways to redesign a school meal program.

  • Petition for vending machines to be stocked with healthier options.
  • Instead of fundraisers selling candy or other junk food, choose healthy alternatives.
  • Reduce or eliminate junk-food marketing on the school campus.

  • Arrange a tour of a local farmer’s market and talk to the vendors.
  • Visit a local farm and ask the farmers to talk about what they produce and their role in the community.
  • Bring in local foods and have a taste test with students. Check out this helpful "Guide to Taste Testing Local Foods in Schools" from Vermont FEED.

  • Students should be integral in all parts of the process: planting, maintenance, harvesting, and distribution.
  • Utilize an integrated pest-management system.
  • Find out if and how the harvest can be used in school lunches.
  • Check out the Edible Schoolyard Project for ideas and inspiration.

  • Use organic, locally grown foods in your recipes.
  • Create dishes using fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods that may be new to students.
  • Give students an opportunity to lead some of the cooking classes.

  • Support the establishment of a farmer’s market in your community. Consider hosting it at your school.
  • Help set up a community garden. Or, if you have an edible garden on site, encourage members of the community to volunteer their time in the garden in exchange for produce.
  • Facilitate a system in which farmers market vendors can accept food stamps. If you have a school garden, consider making excess produce available to families in need.
  • Participate in local outreach events, creating displays, posters and fliers highlighting the benefits of healthy eating.

  • Discuss the use of pesticides and how they can impact our health and the environment.
  • Investigate relationships between agricultural practices, soil fertility, and soil erosion.
  • Discuss methods of food preservation.
  • Compare and contrast conventional techniques with those of sustainable agriculture.
  • The Chesapeake Bay is heavily impacted by agricultural practices. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website to learn how the bay has been impacted and research similar issues in your community.

  • Ask someone from your Cooperative Extension Office to talk to students about local agriculture practices.
  • Reach out to a local health care provider or nutritionist who can talk about healthy eating.
  • Ask a farmer who runs an organically certified farm to share the organic farming process and how it differs from traditional farming practices.
  • Ask a chef who specializes in farm-to-table meal preparation to conduct a cooking presentation for the school community.

  • Have students research where the food they eat comes from. Highlight the connection between agriculture and global deforestation. The Rainforest Alliance is a good resource.
  • Learn about sustainable choices by playing the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education’s "Fish Game."
  • Check out Vermont Feed: A Farm-to-School Project to find several lessons that highlight sustainable food practices.