Over the Thanksgiving weekend, one our freelance writers, Rebecca Hannam, brought to my attention an interesting press release from the University of Guelph on how its on-campus child care centre has reduced its carbon footprint by switching to only feeding a plant-based diet.
She asked in her email to me “why is no one talking about this?”
After reading the release, I thought she posed an excellent question.
The release explained how the University of Guelph’s Child Care and Learning Centre (CCLC) had reduced its carbon footprint by removing animal products from the menu, and only serving a fully plant-based menu.
I commend any institution that take steps to reduce its environmental impact, but I get offended when the impact is over-inflated.
And after reading the release, I was left thinking that the university just may be leaning towards the idea that plant-based diets are more sustainable than those that include animal products. This is concerning given the fact the it calls itself ‘Canada’s food university.’ I think we can all agree that food is anything that can be eaten and digested to provide our bodies with energy, and includes more than just plant products.
In a report it commissioned from Foodsteps, CCLC’s dietary switch has apparently allowed for a monthly savings of 1,900 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) compared to its previous menu. The centre made the menu switch in 2020, according to its director Valerie Trew.
“The need for efficiency, safety and inclusion is what drove this switch at first,” said Trew in the release, “but we’ve learned it connects to our mission of caring for children and to the University’s larger mission of improving life and sustainability. It’s small steps like this that can make a difference.”
Indeed it is a small step. I don’t know how many children are at the centre, but I would guess that most of them are driven there by their parents or caregivers in a fossil fuel-powered vehicle of some kind. The Foodsteps report said CCLC’s CO2 reduction is the equivalent of driving 7,800 kilometres. Obviously carting kids back and forth to daycare is not equal to driving nearly 8,000 kilometres every month, but when you take into account driving in a city as big as Guelph, daily distances can add up quickly and idling at numerous stoplights in rush hour also adds to the emissions count.
In a February 2022 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compiled global data on greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest contributor to CO2 by far is fossil fuels and industrial use (65 per cent of global CO2 emissions). Farming and agricultural processes were included in the ‘land use’ category with forestry and other land uses, which contributes 11 per cent of global CO2.
Trew’s argument for greater efficiency and inclusion is easier to swallow. The centre was finding it difficult and time-consuming to prepare separate meals for children allergic to dairy, eggs or other food allergens. Some food allergies can be life-threatening, so this is understandable. She said children with allergies had to sit away from other children while eating, so mealtimes were not inclusive.
But I wonder how many children was this affecting? I’m not trying to downplay the difficulty and fear involved with caring for a child with a food allergy that cause severe anaphylaxis, nor do I want to see children isolated for something for which they have no control.
But severe food allergies causing anaphylaxis are not prevalent. In a study published in August 2020 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the prevalence of physician-reported food allergies in Canadian children was examined. The study found that overall, 2.53 per cent of children had reported food allergies, with the most common allergies being peanuts (0.8 per cent of children with food allergies), tree nut (0.6 per cent), cow’s milk (0.4 per cent), egg (0.3 per cent), and fruit, finned fish and shellfish were reported to each have a prevalence of 0.2 per cent.
Trew admits to being a vegan, and another reason to explore a new menu was based on this. I am not judging her or anyone else for their dietary choices, but I am surprised that a university that offers programs in both plant and animal agriculture, and has some of the brightest minds in the world working towards making both livestock and crops more sustainable and nutritious, could place such emphasis on one type of diet as being sustainable.
It makes for a quick and interesting news story for sure, but ‘Canada’s food university’ needs to be mindful of the optics of what it touts as sustainable.