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Drastically Reduce GHGs w/ What We Eat while Creating Collaborative Space for Climate Institutions: Plant-Based Foods Produce Far Fewer GHGs



Building Communities; Eliminating Contradictions

Food builds and strengthens communities. The intersection of community, food choices, and environmental impacts can be the source of community-based collaboration for climate resiliency. Presently, however, there is a stark contradiction in providing unsustainable food choices at institutions that stand for sustainability and climate action.

High-Tech v. Simple Solutions - Taking a Bite Out of a Major GHG Contributor

While technology fosters important solutions, one of the most compelling efforts to combat climate change rests upon our plates at every meal. "Cattle-rearing generates more global warming GHGs, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than [the entire] transportation [industry]" (UN, 2006). This shocking fact is due to high levels of livestock excrement (methane), feeding livestock through years of growth and gestation, and heavy factory processing. Reductions in meat consumption also decrease rainforest deforestation (Machovina et al., 2015; Walker et al., 2013) and preserve carbon sinks. 

Plant-based cafeterias in Boulder will provide residents the opportunity to cultivate conversation about the environmental benefits of plant-based cafeterias.

A Sustainable Space for Collaboration

Each month, one institution that has adopted a plant-based cafeteria will host a meal, a “Green Commons Luncheon,” for employees of other climate change institutions, thus fostering collaboration on climate research, mitigation and advocacy. Such a luncheon will bring joy, support, and deliciousness to community-based climate action.

Providing sustainable food choices at climate institutions, schools, hospitals and other centers promotes community-building and collaboration on other healthy climate solutions. Plant-based meals are more inclusive of practicers of kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, and allergen diets who are largely excluded at conventional cafeterias, allowing for more diversity in finding creative solutions to climate issues.

Source: Kick the habit: A UN guide to climate neutrality

What actions do you propose?



Direct Actions that Decrease the Carbon (and GHG) Footprint:

  1. ​Cafeterias will purchase more sustainable food products that have a smaller GHG footprint, including CO2, Methane, and N2O. They will do so by purchasing plant-based foods and buying local when possible, creating opportunities for partnerships with local farmers to decrease food miles. This will, in turn, gradually increase the demand for plant-based and local food and decrease the demand for less efficient food products. It may result in job creation, in which local farms shift their farming practices to supply the growing demand.
  2. Cafeterias will phase out single-use dishware (including disposables, recyclables, and compostables) and convert to reusable dishware. This will eliminate the carbon footprint from manufacturing, transporting and disposing of single-use items.


Actions that Foster a Further Decrease in the Carbon (and GHG) Footprint:

  1. ​Cafeterias will become a platform for communication between different climate actors and foster avenues for collaboration. As Climate CoLab notes, there are over "100 climate-oriented organizations and roughly 3,000 climate experts" in Boulder, CO. This initiative creates a place for them to meet and socialize while they share their work and expertise, thus enhancing the quality and efficiency of solutions needed to combat climate change. Doing so while eating low-GHG meals will demonstrate true commitment to these efforts.
  2. Educational Promotions will be based in and focused around cafeterias. Posters, artwork, pamphlets, and talks will aid in giving people 'food for thought' about what they eat. CEOs, employees, and cafeteria staff will all be educated in the impact the food industry has on GHGs.
  3. The world looks at Boulder as a model for sustainable actionData regarding these transitions will be made public, allowing Boulder to gain publicity in this transition and aiding transitions elsewhere in Denver, the US, and the world. CU students will be encouraged to do research projects to evaluate the shifts in sustainability and psychology around these transitions and to publish their research to increase the visibility of this climate initiative.
  4. Through a gradual and non-threatening awareness-raising process, masses of people will be encouraged to reflect on their relationship with global climate change in a new, more comprehensive way.​
  5. Climate institutions will become a model for self-consistency and integrity, reflecting commitment to the cause for which they were created.


Actions Detailing the Gradual Shift toward Plant-Based Offerings

Cafeterias will not be converted overnight to plant-based-only options. It is important not only to reduce the GHG footprint in the cafeterias but also to gain understanding and support from the people who eat in the cafeterias. It must be demonstrated that their feedback is valued and vital in informing the specifics of the transition. Diners will have opportunities to sample foods and the popular items will be offered to suit demand. 

  1. Chef Training & Sample Food Feedback: Plant-based meals will be introduced, at first, by an established team of chefs from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). HSUS chefs will offer sample meals to diners who will in turn provide feedback on their satisfaction of the meals. This feedback will inform which meals will be adopted by cafeteria chefs and offered to cafeteria attendees. HSUS chefs will then train cafeteria chefs how to prepare the most popular foods. 
  2. Price Incentives: 100% plant-based meals will be priced lower than meat-based meals at first, providing a monetary incentive to purchase plant-based options. Prices of plant-based meals will later increase according to popular demand which will supplement funding needed to complete the vision of operating the cafeteria in a sustainable way. (Note: This increase in the price of plant-based options will make prices similar to meat-based options until funding is secured to make the full transition to reusable dishware. This action will not be necessary if loans or investments for the dishware transition are otherwise secured.)
  3. Gradual Shift: The following exemplifies one way in which the gradual shift could proceed:

    a) Each working day one to three 100% plant-based meals will be offered at a lower price than meat-based meals.

    b) As popularity increases, more plant-based options will be offered along with fewer meat-based options.

    c) Chefs from local vegan restaurants will be invited to offer new food samples to cafateria attendees and further train cafeteria chefs to prepare popular meals, according to customer feedback. This will give vegan restaurants exposure while determining which new plant-based offerings diners would like to eat for lunch at work. Plant-based offerings in the cafeteria will continue to increase as demand for certain meals increases while meat-based options decrease.

    d) Prices of plant-based meals may be raised as popularity increases in the effort (explained above) to produce revenue for the transition to reusable dishware.

    e) As demand for non-plant-based food wanes, these meat-based options can be discontinued. 


Actions Detailing the Big-Picture Plan of Cafeterias' Transitions to a Lower Carbon and GHG Footprint:

To comply with worldwide and local climate initiatives, the City of Boulder and local climate actors will assist in the transition of public and private cafeterias to plant-based meal offerings with reusable dishware that host Green Commons Luncheons, which foster climate collaboration amongst institutions, through the following actions:

  1. PILOT CAFETERIA: A new dining hall at CU, Ralphie’s Roots, will pilot a plant-based dining hall with reusable dishware and an educational series that builds a foundation for these transitions. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will train chefs in plant-based cooking; educational promotions will be instated before and during the opening of the cafeteria; and follow-up surveys of diner preferences will be conducted. Data regarding cafeteria attendance before and after the food transition will help to evaluate the pilot program and inform the process of transition at other cafeterias. Other universities have shown previous successes of plant-based dining halls, and CU has large potential for improvement in terms of its meat purchasing (see Table 1). 

  2. PILOT GREEN COMMONS LUNCHEONS: Ralphie’s Roots will also pilot the Green Commons Luncheons. Each month after the transition to plant-based food, Ralphie's Roots will invite employees from one or more climate institutions to attend a Green Commons Luncheon with other climate actors at CU. The hosting institution and each of the invitees will give a short talk, sharing an overview, or aspect, of climate initiatives at their institution. This networking opportunity will promote a greater understanding of the crossover between institutions in the climate field and an awareness of new and innovative projects. This will open up opportunities for attendees to discuss ways in which they can collaborate on -- or specialize in -- their research, initiatives, and current actions. 

  3. EXPAND CAFETERIAS: Based on the success of Ralphie’s Roots, the City of Boulder will collaborate with local organizations to select one cafeteria within the climate industry, a hospital, a K-12 school, and a community center for a total of 4 cafeterias to expand the program. CU or HSUS chefs will train the next set of chefs, and the City of Boulder will implement proper before/after evaluations in each cafeteria. The cafeterias will transition to offering 75% to 100% of its meal options that are 100% plant-based.

  4. OVERSEE FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE FOR TRANSITION​ TO REUSABLE DISHWARE: (Financial assistance is not necessary because savings from the transition to plant-based foods will gradually generate funding and allow the transistion to reusable dishware.) However, for the greatest impact, we suggest that the City of Boulder oversees the distribution of low-interest loans to private institutions to assist in the upfront costs of reusable dishware and dishwashing technology. 

  5. EXPAND GREEN COMMONS LUNCHEONS: Continue Green Commons Luncheons at new plant-based, reusable-ware cafeterias following their transition.

  6. FURTHER EXPAND CAPACITY FOR REUSABLE DISHWARE: Eventually, all public and private cafeterias that are interested will transition to 100% plant-based and reusable-ware set-ups. Green Commons Luncheons will continue to be hosted once a month at different cafeterias.


Table 1.


Who will take these actions?

  • University of Colorado Boulder: Implement Ralphie’s Roots.
  • CU Environmental Center: Implement Educational Campaign and provide posters and promotional materials.
  • Inspired Student and Citizen Volunteers: There will be an art & design contest in which students and the public can submit posters, paintings, etc., electronically, to be a part of the educational promotion. The CU Environmental Center will aid in the selection of these materials.
  • Humane Society of the United States: Team of chefs, who have trained chefs across the country in plant-based cuisine, will train cafeteria chefs in Boulder.
  • Vegan Restaurant Chefs in Boulder: Provide further training for cafeteria chefs while offering sample foods and collecting feedback from diners while gaining exposure and promoting plant-based eating out in Boulder.
  • Cafeteria Diners: Eat sample plant-based food offerings and provide feedback to help create desirable food options for their work lunches.
  • City of Boulder: Outreach to public and private cafeterias to pitch idea. Oversee grant process for transitional grants for cafeterias. Assist in the start-up of Green Commons Luncheons.
  • Public and Private Cafeterias: Implement transitions to plant-based, reusable-ware cafeterias. Host Green Commons Luncheons, with the help of the City of Boulder.
  • Institutions that transition to Plant-Based Cafeterias: Sign up to host biannual Green Commons Luncheons. 
  • Climate Experts: Attend luncheons, build alliances, and share knowledge.


What are the key challenges?


In a practical sense, the shift to plant-based cafeterias is simple, especially when compared with most other climate solutions. The greatest challenge is one of psychology: resistance to change. People may resist the idea that meat production is inefficient and produces volumes more GHGs than plant-based diets. There is a fear that plant-based diets do not provide enough protein or variety in meals. This fear is propelled largely by old myths originating from advertising campaigns in the animal agriculture industry and cultural norms.

Overcoming this Obstacle

  • Gradually offer more plant-based options based on demand and diner preferences
  • Precede food shift with educational program raising awareness: compare environmental footprints, health-related topics, etc.
  • Train chefs to cook plant-based meals based on surveying what diners like with sample foods in cafeteria before shift
  • Advertise that the cafeteria will only offer sustainable meals, and allow people to bring their own lunch if they choose



This transition ranges from simple to less simple, depending on the dishwashing capacity and possession of reusable dishware in existing cafeterias. If a cafeteria is equipped to handle the capacity of reusable dishware for its diners, only savings result from no longer offering single-use items.

Overcoming this Obstacle:

  • Encourage people to bring their own coffee mug to decrease expenses for the cafeteria
  • Purchase reusable dishware
  • Upgrade dishwashing capacity to accommodate diner attendance
  • Use accrued savings from the shift to plant-based ingredients to fund the transition to 100% reusable dishware



There is little here that cannot easily be overcome by the size and scope of the luncheons. If cafeterias lack space, they may limit the number of attendees. It requires minimal organization and a short commute.

What are the key benefits?

Why wait to make a huge impact on GHGs?

It’s simple. It’s easy. It’s inexpensive. It may be the most effectivefastest and easiest to implement, and least expensive solution to impact Global Climate Change.

This proposal addresses an enormous inefficiency in our society. The production of livestock wastes 32% of Earth’s calories from crops and emits more global greenhouse gases (GHGs) than the entire transportation sector (Cassidy et al., 2014). Addressing GHG emissions and resource inefficiency of animal products (and bi-products) through the institutionalization of plant-based eating is a great step in combating the climate issue. Reductions in meat consumption also promote biodiversity, reduce water scarcity and decrease continued deforestation, as in the Amazon.

Environmental & Health Benefits

  • Less land degradation, destroyed habitat, rainforest destruction & more carbon sinks
  • Less GHG emissions (carbon, methane & N20) 
  • Less air/water pollution due to reductions in a) animal farming, b) animal waste and c) atmospheric GHGs from waste, production, and forest destruction
  • More empowered people who can make lifelong sustainable eating choices beyond the cafeteria
  • Decreased effects on respiratory health from decreased demand for meat/dairy products and related GHG pollution


Economic Benefits

  • Decreased cafeteria costs (Vegetables are usually cheaper than meat - See Table 1, above)
  • Cost of disposal of animal products are eliminated
  • Quicker movement to halt climate change and related economic strains from relieving natural disasters, wars, etc.
  • Increased value placed on Values Based Consumerism


Social Benefits

  • Plant-based cafeterias are more inclusive: kosher, vegetarian, vegan, & health restricted diets all accommodated (Cafeterias often exclude above dietary restrictions)
  • Less human conflict over resources due to degradation, pollution, or climate change
  • Awareness of harmful environmental repercussions from mass consumption of animal products
  • Continued collaboration on climate efforts

What are the proposal’s costs?

Funding for this project:​ Savings from ​Primary Initiative​ - Plant-Based Ingredients Cost Less Than Animal Products (See Table Above.)​

Increasing the purchase of plant-based ingredients while decreasing meat-based ingredients results in savings (See Table above).  Thus, the main thrust of this project produces revenue that can be reserved for furthering the vision of the project. For cafeterias that do not currently possess adequate reusable dishware or dishwashing facilities to accommodate its cafeteria-users, money that is saved from transitioning to plant-based ingredients will be used to purchase reuseable dishware and the dishwashing equipment needed to eliminate single-use containers.

  • Humane Society of the United States chef training program -- FREE

  • Educational campaign and organizing Green Commons Luncheons -- $3,000


Though funding for this project is mostly self-contained by the savings it creates, institutions may apply for grants or city loans to make a swifter transition to sustainability through decreasing the GHG footprints of their cafeteria.

  • Upfront costs of dishwashing equipment -- $3000/Commercial Green (EnergyStar) Dishwasher (services 40 dish racks per hour). (Cafeterias already have commercial dishwashing equipment to wash cook-ware used in food prep. Costs of expanding capacity will vary.)

  • Maintenance of dishwashing equipment -- $700/year

  • Upfront costs of reusable dishware and utensils --  Cost depends on quantity of purchase (Many cafeterias already have reusable dishware. For cafeterias which don't have these resources, costs will vary depending on the size of the cafeteria and the degree to which it has to shift.)

  • Ongoing costs of operation, including extra costs in labor and electricity for running the dishwashers. (Many cafeterias already have this in place. For cafeterias which don't have this process in operation, this will vary depending on the size of the cafeteria and the degree to which it has to shift.)


Time line

0-6 months

  • Pilot educational program for new CU dining Hall: Ralphie’s Roots. Display GHG comparisons of a) plant-based v. meat/dairy diets b) reusable v. disposable v. recyclable v. compostable dishware (*Dishware includes plates, bowls, drinking containers and utensils.)
  • HSUS trains chefs in plant-based cooking; Sample food offered in dining area; Survey diner preferences
  • Collect data on cafeteria attendance (before and after food transition)
  • Selection process to choose cafeteria in climate industry, hospital, K-12 school, & community center 


6mo-1 year

  • Ralphie's Roots, 100% plant-based; offers 0% single-use dishware (100% reusable); Monthly hosting of Green Commons Luncheons for local climate collaboration
  • Educational program, chef training, sample food, surveys & data collection in each of 4 selected cafeterias


1-2 years

  • 4 selected cafeterias transition to 75%-100% meal options that are 100% plant-based, based on data
  • Single-use drink containers eliminated; other dishware eliminated or decreased, based on dishwashing capacity
  • Renovations to expand dishwashing capacity & materials purchased toward elimination of single-use dishware
  • Expand biannual Green Commons Luncheons


5-15 years 

  • 4 selected cafeterias, 100% plant-based; offer 0% single-use dishware (100% reusable)
  • Educational program, surveys & data collection in all Boulder cafeterias
  • All Boulder cafeterias  transition to 75%-100% meal options that are 100% plant-based
  • Single-use drink containers or other dishware eliminated or decreased
  • Materials purchased toward elimination of single-use dishware
  • Expand biannual Green Commons Luncheons
  • In Denver, same process occurs at 3 pilot universities followed by 20 cafeterias in the city


15-50 years

  • 100 cafeterias in Colorado undergo same process 
  • 2 or more cafeterias in each state undergo same process 
  • Boulder & Denver Sister Cities undergo same process in 1 cafeteria


50-100 years

  • 50% cafeterias in each state undergo same process.
  • 100 US Sister Cities undergo same process.

Related proposals

Value not set.


From Summary:

Source of Figure (Animal Proteins: the good, the bad and the ugly): Kick the habit: A UN guide to climate neutrality

From Proposal Costs:

NIST employee in finance department gave detailed rough figures for costs of operation and maintenance of commercial dishwashers, pointing out that all cafeterias already have commercial dishwashers because they are needed for food preparation. Her identity is anonymous because she did not look up exact figures for my inquiry.


Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (2015). Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System. [Data for individual universities]. Retrieved from

Cassidy, E. S., West, P. C., Gerber, J. S., & Foley, J. a. (2013). Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. Environmental Research Letters, 8(3), 034015.

Garnett, T. (2011). Where are the best opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the food system (including the food chain)? Food Policy, 36, S23–S32.

Gerber, P. J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., … Tempio, G. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock - a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Rome. Retrieved from

Machovina, B., Feeley, K. J., & Ripple, W. J. (2015). Biodiversity conservation : The key is reducing meat consumption. Science of the Total Environment, 536, 419–431.

Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012). A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Ecosystems, 15(3), 401–415.

Reusable Food Servicewhare Guide: Rething Disposables

Steinfield, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., & de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome.

Walker, N. F., Patel, S. A., & Kalif, K. A. B. (2013). From Amazon pasture to the high street: deforestation and the Brazilian cattle product supply chain. Tropical Conservation  Science,6(3), 446–467.