The Diet-Climate Connection

Programs 181, 182, 184, 185 • 2 hrs


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A public radio documentary from Humankind

Produced in association with WGBH/Boston
Distributed worldwide by NPR

What was the carbon footprint of your dinner last night? Agriculture is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases associated with climate change. This is an important emerging topic as Americans grapple with recent heatwaves, storms and other weather extremes as “the face of global warming”.

Listeners will learn in this sound-rich series that climate scientists increasingly focus on food production as a source of heat-trapping gases. We’ll discuss which foods have the lowest environmental footprint (fruits and vegetables) and which have the highest (red meat and dairy), and why. What’s fascinating is that public health experts recommend that we emphasize in our diets the same foods that scientists regard as most climate-friendly. That’s the connection between diet and climate.

In our first documentary (half-hour segments 1 and 2), we consider positive recent trends at a venue where tens of millions of Americans eat their food daily: the school cafeteria. In the second hour (half-hour segments 3 and 4) we hear clear explanations of how our food system generates heat-trapping gases — and we learn about personal food choices you can make to reduce your own environmental footprint; plus we visit the White House vegetable garden and other sites of the new urban agriculture movement.


Recent droughts, heat waves and wildfires have vividly brought home the effects of our warming planet. And some of the consequences will also show up at the grocery store. Foods we buy will cost more because of crop failures.

And this is just part of a multi-faceted story we call The Diet-Climate Connection, being heard on many public radio stations:

  • Learn which foods release the highest global-warming emissions and which foods release the lowest.
  • Hear stories of people in different communities seeking more sustainable food choices and adapting their diets, especially at college campuses.
  • Discover the surprising alignment between climate-friendly foods and a healthy diet.

Part 1
College Dining Goes Green

Hundreds of colleges are now moving toward healthier, more climate-friendly food choices on campus

This documentary explores how diet-climate concerns are playing out in higher education, at the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (near Minneapolis-St.Paul). Students and administration there share a commitment to environmental responsibility. And the food service (staffed by an unusual provider known as, Bon Appetit) has adjusted menu offerings accordingly – and deliciously!

This fascinating new movement is touching more than 200 U.S. campuses, where students are pressing for more sustainable dining services, including an emphasis on locally-grown food (which reduces carbon footprint by minimizing heavy-emission, long-distance transport of food).

We hear why students are so passionate about this trend. And we learn ways of combatting an unnecessary source of emissions: food waste. Also, a visit with a family-run organic farm.

I learned a lot about how our food system operated, and how it related to the environment and to our personal health. And what a crisis we’re facing with climate change, and other environmental ills… And I was really upset about it.”

—Lindsay Gutherie, student, Carleton College

We try and stay away from some of the high carbon [foods]. We’ve got beef and cheese galore here in the off season, in our downtime in the winter. But we’re really trying to support as much vegetarian and veganism as possible…and it’s a tasty alternative, they don’t even know what they’re missing nine times out of ten.”

—Michael DelCambre, Carleton College Executive Chef, Bon Appetit Management Co.

Part 2
Sustainable Meals for Schoolchildren

Parents, educators, students and USDA officials describe surprising improvements in the food served to children

Stonehurst Elementary School, Oakland, CA

Public school cafeterias are changing! We visit two in New England where recent policies reflect much greater attention to healthy meal options than were typically available in the past. Codman Academy, a public charter high school in Boston’s inner city, banned junk food from campus, and the buying of fast food during school hours; kids at the school now can access veggie-burgers, low-calorie foods, and other healthier options. In Burlington, VT, the public schools have prioritized supporting local agriculture (partly for environmental benefits), and catering to a student body representing dozens of cultures and cuisines. We hear school staff, students and community agriculture activists.Also: a look at landmark recent improvements in USDA school meal rules, and the challenges of inducing schools to provide healthier foods—and of enticing kids to eat them!

I’m not concerned about what [food] they access here, because I know that they eat healthy. Outside of school, it’s a different story.”

—Olivia Brown Pina, Parent of Codman Academy student in Dorchester, MA

Once you get that awareness that there’s all this great food out there that isn’t in a box, that isn’t full of added sugar, or sodium, or all sorts of other stuff, I think there’s a lot more interest on the part of the kids.”

—Andy Jones, Farm manager, Intervale community agriculture center in Burlington, VT

Part 3
The Carbon Footprint of Your Dinner

Which foods have the largest global warming footprint and which are most climate-friendly?

We start by visiting the kitchen of Frances Moore Lappe, whose ground-breaking 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet laid the basis for today’s understanding of the link between the environment and the food we eat. And we hear from her daughter, Anna Lappe, also a gifted author, who explains how our food choices affect the daunting problem of climate change. Then we learn how heavily industrialized agriculture—especially the conventional production of livestock—produces significant emissions of greenhouse gases. We hear about the “Meatless Monday” movement, which parallels a WW2-era campaign to reduce meat consumption, today championed by Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney (whose song about it is included). And we tour a supermarket accompanied by a physician and best-selling author, to learn about healthy food choices that are also climate-friendly.

There has been a lot less discussion of meat than a lot of the other factors, in terms of what we can do as individuals to influence climate change… But we need to talk about diet, and if that’s where we can make our impact, then that’s what people need to know, and understand.”

—Roni Neff, research and policy director, Johns Hopkins Univ. Center for a Livable Future, Baltimore

There’s just tremendous waste built into our food system, and then of course the outcome: creating a people such as we are today whose food is really a health threat, that many of our top diseases are now food-related.”

—Frances Moore Lappe, author, Diet for a Small Planet, Cambridge, Massachusetts

If you look at the green split peas, lentils, black beans, these cost pennies… all of the beans are very, very high in protein. You’re not going to go wrong with beans.”

—Neal Barnard, MD, president, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Washington, DC

Part 4
Growing Locally, Thinking Globally

The new urban agriculture movement offers a way for us to re-connect our lives to nature

With just 2% of Americans now working on farms, many of us have only mythical images of how our food is produced. But a fascinating new movement brings together people in vibrant gardens and small urban farms, where they grow tasty, nourishing food, save money, get to know their neighbors and combat climate change. Our journey begins at the very productive White House vegetable garden, planted in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama; it feeds the president and his family, others at the White House and a local food pantry. We then visit Tonopah Community Garden, recently established in West Las Vegas in a community considered a “food desert” (very limited access to fresh vegetables and fruit); volunteers there discuss how growing food together yields delicious tasty meals and breaks down social barriers. We then travel to California,

Farmers market at Oakland, CA public elementary school

where a public park in San Jose hosts Veggielution, a six-acre plot below a flyover freeway, which has drawn thousands of volunteers; and we end up in Oakland at a public school farmer’s market, where students and their families partake of scrumptious, healthy, climate-friendly produce.

We have seeds from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, that he actually used to plant, and grow, and eat himself, and that have been passed down from generation to generation. And it’s been just a great experience to grow these seeds that, you know, are so old. But you know what? They almost always do the best.”

—Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and senior advisor on healthy food initiatives, Washington, DC

One of the things people are learning is that they can actually do it. And it is just so incredible when you have someone that was [inexperienced] Rosalind Brooks like me initially, and they come in and they have no idea how to plant, and they buy a plot, and they plant some seeds, and they’re actually eating from it in three months. It is just incredible.”

—Rosalind Brooks, founder, Tonopah Community Garden, Las Vegas, NV

We really view that the meal program is a foundation from which the students will become academically successful. And so by providing them fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s going to help them be ready to learn.”

—Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services, Oakland, California Unified School District

The Climate-Friendly Food Guide

This resource explains the diet-climate link, ways to eat more sustainably, delicious recipes and more!
Click here to download!


The Diet-Climate Connection project is funded by the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, the Lintilhac Foundation and a special grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. It is presented by Humankind public radio in partnership with Connie Goldman Productions.


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