Cities Are Coming to the Table for Plant-Based Foods

7 min readMar 10, 2022

Over the past decade, food has emerged as the next frontier in the climate movement. Animal agriculture’s greenhouse emissions account for nearly 15 percent of all emissions, matching vehicular contributions, according to a Chatham House report. For decades, America has dug in its heels as a meat-and-potatoes nation — until just recently, as citizens and institutions have collectively begun to rally around the understanding that a sustainable future requires a plant-centric food system.

The authors of the Chatham House report spotlight a key ingredient in sparking this shift away from our meat-heavy diet, revealing that there is “a general belief that it is the role of government to spearhead efforts to address unsustainable consumption of meat.” Ultimately, we depend on our leaders to model and usher sustainable eating into our communities. Therefore, citizen activists have begun urging decisionmakers in cities from coast to coast to bring plant-forward policies to the table and reshape food norms.

Become a citizen advocate for plant-forward policies in your city: Attend our webinar on March 15.

Taste-Testing New Policies

The U.S. actually has a long history of government-led plant-forward food policies: Meatless Mondays began as a wartime effort (though originally celebrated on Tuesdays) to conserve resources during both World Wars I and II. More recently, health and climate concerns have led to a wave of new Meatless Monday resolutions in the early 2010s, passed by municipalities from Oakland, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, and even the little town of Boone, North Carolina. These localities committed to serving meat-free meals each Monday, and encouraged their citizens to do the same, signaling that healthy and sustainable foods had now become a political priority.

During this time, Eugene, Oregon became one of the first cities to demonstrate a commitment to climate-friendly foods every day of the week by adding a “buy climate-friendly first” clause to its Climate Energy and Action Plan, which called on city agencies to reduce procurement of carbon-intensive foods including red meat and dairy.

Perhaps the most sweeping indication of policymakers’ conviction on the issue during this period was the signing of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in 2015 by 165 local governments globally, including Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, New York City, and others in the U.S., which included a commitment to meat reduction.

A Recipe for Broader Change

Yet, despite their symbolic value, many of these early commitments lacked any type of binding power⁠ — a key component in actually shifting municipal purchases and meals served away from unsustainable animal-based ingredients. So citizen advocates have gotten creative in their solutions, using avenues from legislation to executive action and climate action planning, to codify the changes they yearn to see.

Last year, following an extensive citizen lobbying effort, Washington, DC, passed a bold new ordinance in the Green Food Purchasing Act, calling for a 25 percent reduction in the city government’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions. According to Friends of the Earth, D.C. is “the first jurisdiction in the country to establish a target for reducing GHG emissions associated with food purchases for public facilities including schools, public healthcare facilities, and correctional facilities.” While not ostensibly a meat-reduction bill, because meat-related emissions can exceed those of plants by 10-to-50-fold, its implementation will necessitate a shift toward plant-centric meals.

One of the most transformative case studies to emerge from this new surge of activism can be found in Berkeley. In 2018, Berkeley became the first U.S. city to adopt “Green Monday,” with completely plant-based meals on Mondays each week. Said Amy Halpern-Laff of the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, “We can make a tremendous difference just by cutting our meat and dairy consumption one day a week.” Following this victory, local group Cultivate Empathy For All, founded by Nilang Gor, began pushing for “Vision 2025,” a commitment by municipal leaders to a 50 percent plant-based shift by 2025. Berkeley has now officially adopted Vision 2025, and Nilang’s organization is lobbying for an ordinance that will replace red and processed meat with healthy plant-based options as a means to achieve the vision. The group has also successfully moved Berkeley to pass a resolution calling on the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) to divest its approximately $679 million from factory farming and is now turning to other localities to follow course. Nilang says that his vision is “to mobilize cities to adopt plant-based policies and put pressure on the state and national government for transitioning towards more ethical, healthy and sustainable food system.”

Coalitions Cook up Meat Reduction Policies

There can never be too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to food policy, and around the country, community advocates are manifesting the power of diverse grassroots coalitions in achieving not only a plant-forward, but also a more equitable and just, food system. Hundreds of organizations and advocates have come together to successfully achieve commitments to the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) in major cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati, Boston, Austin, and more, raising the bar for sustainability, health, and welfare in their food purchases. GFPP touts that it “transforms the way public institutions purchase food by creating a transparent and equitable food system built on five core values: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability.” As part of San Francisco’s GFPP commitment, which Better Food Foundation’s partner organization, Farm Forward, helped accomplish, the city will also reduce its animal product purchases for jails by 50 percent by 2024 and hospitals by 15 percent by 2023.

And down the California coast, our own team member, John Millspaugh, co-chair of San Diego’s GFPP Working Group, has helped achieve GFPP commitments by both Oceanside Unified School District and Escondido Union School District, with a combined annual food spend of nearly $7.3 million on more than 5.6 million meals served annually. According to John, “School districts and municipalities spend millions of dollars on food every year. As institutions with significant purchasing power, their shift toward more plant-based foods profoundly impacts environmental sustainability and animal welfare, and signals other institutions in the region to follow suit.” The Working Group is now encouraging the County of San Diego, which has just voted to allocate $1 million toward more sustainable and equitable food, to follow suit — and John hopes that it will incorporate meat reduction into its goals.

Within the City of San Diego, the Better Food Foundation has also joined forces with 20 community groups to urge decisionmakers to tackle unsustainable eating in their Climate Action Plan update. After publishing our open letter, attending meetings, and soliciting hundreds of citizen comments, we achieved a commitment to a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions from meat and dairy products in the draft plan.

More Than Trimming the Meat: A Plant-Based Default

Better Food Foundation continues to work for the inclusion of tangible strategies to meet this goal, such as the use of plant-based defaults: a simple menu shift that makes vegan options the default, with the choice for diners to opt into meat and dairy. Studies have shown that this technique increases the uptake of plant-based foods by an average of 60 percentage points, reducing food’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and water footprint by 24 percent.

In 2019, Amsterdam became the first global city to default to vegetarian meals through a city council action. And last year, Denver became the first American city to begin putting plant-based defaults into practice. Resident Claudia Lifton joined the Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Council to usher in more sustainable foods in her community and, within her first year, achieved a commitment to this strategy, also known as DefaultVeg. As she continues to work toward citywide adoption, Claudia says, “It is so rewarding to be a part of getting such a monumental and important policy passed in my city. To see Denver acknowledge and act on the impacts of animal agriculture on the planet fills me with hope and pride. I hope that this decision will inspire and lead the way for other cities to do the same.”

The Final Ingredient: Action

Banding together, advocates have brought an array of policies to fruition that not only directly reduce their local governments’ environmental footprints, but also signal to their citizens that America is ready to leave behind its old hamburger default for a new, resilient norm. These individuals are creating systemic changes that ultimately spark collective shifts in the way we eat every day.

But to dish out these policies successfully, decisionmakers must put effective strategies into place for meeting their goals, whether those are emissions reductions, improved nutrition standards, or an explicit shift away from animal products. At BFF, we’re working with activists like John in San Diego and Claudia in Denver to help localities reframe their menus, simply by putting plants at the top of the menu and sidelining the meat through DefaultVeg.

You can help bring about a plant-based default in your community: Join our upcoming webinar on Tuesday, March 15, to hear directly from the inspiring activists featured in this piece about their challenges and triumphs. Sign up here.




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