App Shows Kids How Their Dinner Affects the Planet

Connecting kid favorites like burgers and bacon with their carbon emissions is a real-world lesson in the realities of climate change.
(Photo: Virginie Blanquart/Getty Images)
Jun 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Presented with an image of a dinner plate and the ability to drag and drop food items to create their favorite meal, a group of eighth-grade boys had little trouble agreeing on what to eat.

“They had steak, bacon, and a burger as their meal,” said University of Illinois curriculum and instruction professor Emma Mercier. They skipped the potato and broccoli options. “Very typical of 14-year-old boys,” she said.

The students were experimenting with Mercier’s Food for Thought app, which dynamically charts the nutritional data and carbon footprint for each food item and assembles the overall meal as a plate. The boys had cooked up quite the carbon load.

“The burger is actually the worst thing in the world,” Mercier said. Studies have shown red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, needs 11 times more water, and results in five times more emissions. All in all, not a good choice in terms of climate.

The 14-year-olds aren’t the only ones devastated by the impact of their beloved red meat. “Burgers in America have always been one of our weaknesses,” said Mercier, who is from Ireland. “It’s been horrifying,” she said. “Hamburgers depress me hugely.”

The Food for Thought app takes those numbers and puts them in context with two goals: to make kids aware of the causes and impacts of climate change and to help them read and make sense of data in their decision-making process. Climate change is a strong element of the new science standards for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. But after days of curricula about climate change, how does a teacher bring concepts out of the textbook and get kids to understand that this affects their daily lives? Mercier says not to fight the tablet at the dinner table.

“Every kid has an opinion about food in a way that I don’t think all the other things we talked about were relevant to them,” she said. “We wanted to highlight something that they have direct experiences of,” and technology, she added, has a way of stirring everyone’s enthusiasm.

“One of the interesting things about technology is that it does allow kids who wouldn’t necessarily engage to engage, so it seemed to be equalizing,” she said. “The visual format, the fact that it’s more interactive, that it’s collaborative—there’s a lot of reasons why kids who may not be overly participatory get into it.”

"Using food as the focal point for promoting awareness of climate change was really brilliant," said University Laboratory High School science and engineering teacher Sharlene Denos, whose students tested the app.

Even Mercier and her team of doctoral student researchers were surprised by what they discovered developing the app.

“We found that reported numbers varied greatly, often not considering the whole trajectory when reporting carbon impacts,” said doctoral student Susan Bromley Kelly. “This has been referred to as the carbon ‘toeprint’ instead of ‘footprint.’ ” Contrary to popular belief, production, not transportation, is responsible for the majority of a food’s carbon footprint. “As you might imagine, this is a difficult metric to calculate. One of the reasons we worked with a limited number of food items was because these were foods we could verify a credible carbon footprint.”

Food for Thought includes chicken, steak, hamburger, and bacon; vegetarian proteins such as black beans, peanut butter, and tofu; and fresh oranges, strawberries, lettuce, broccoli, and asparagus. As dietary guidelines are beginning to suggest, good health and sustainability go hand in hand, but not all vegetables are equally environmentally friendly.

“You really should pick broccoli instead of asparagus,” advised Mercier. A serving of asparagus requires 81 gallons of water to grow, she said. (The plants can’t be fully harvested until the vegetable is four years old.)

Mercier pointed out that the app’s intent is not to push a vegetarian agenda but to present data and allow the students to decide for themselves. Food for Thought gives students a sense of the impact of their choices. One student reported she opted for chicken instead of steak for dinner that night with her family—and Mercier now orders her burgers at a restaurant that serves local beef.

In future iterations of the app, Mercier would like to include information about food waste. Kids may not be the ones doing the grocery shopping, but they are in charge of what from their lunch gets tossed in the cafeteria garbage.

“The data on the waste is quite compelling,” she said. “They felt like they could do something about that.”