Colleges Reduce Emissions by Offering Plant-Based Options by Default, Study Finds

Heard of plant-based defaults? It's a simple idea that could be a major help in the fight against climate change.

college student eating, plant-based defaults

Reported Climate Research

Words by

New research highlights an opportunity colleges have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — starting with the gleaming silver serving trays in their buffet-style dining halls. The project, spearheaded by Food for Climate League in collaboration with Better Food Foundation, Sodexo and three different university dining halls, found that swapping out meat entrees for plant-based ones reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improves the likelihood diners will opt for the plant-based dish. Scaled up, the impact could be significant — a million meals switched over to plant-based defaults would save the equivalent of “driving a passenger car over 1 million miles,” according to the Better Food Foundation website.

Plant-based defaults have gained real traction over the last decade. Related to “nudge theory,” the idea is that small changes in how choices are presented could shift or “nudge” people in the direction of what’s better for them and society. It’s not without criticism, but researchers continue to test different types of nudges in hopes of success, including the kind that aim to get people eating more plants. 

This study is the first to test offering plant based defaults across three different all-you-can-eat university dining halls. Researchers compared days on which only a plant-based option was displayed to the students, to days when both a meat and plant-based dish were offered. Students could still eat animal products on either day — the difference was, on the plant-based default days, they had to request them. 

The changes were impressive. The dining halls that consistently offered a plant-based dish as the default experienced a surge in how often diners went with a plant-based choice — increasing the “average plant-based take rate” from around 30 percent to 81.5 percent. That meant a drop in emissions too. “On days when the plant-based dish was served as the default option at one station, we observed a 23.6 percent reduction in food-related greenhouse gas emissions,” says Ilana Braverman, who was Director of Outreach at Better Food Foundation until the end of last year. What’s more, on default days the number of students opting for the plant-based entree more than doubled.  

Here’s What Works, and What Doesn’t

There were a number of factors that had an impact on how well the plant-based default worked, or not. According to Braverman, who is now the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Greener by Default, “plant-based dishes were deemed more satisfying when presented on their own, rather than when they had to compete alongside meat dishes on control days.” 

One way to smooth the transition might be by starting off with freshman food halls. “If you’re looking to add more plant-based items to a university menu, it’s probably best to do it first in the freshman dining hall at the beginning of a new school year, so that new students simply experience those options as the norm, without even realizing that a change has taken place,” Braverman says. 

One of the three universities in the study, Rensselaer Polytechnic, made some missteps in implementing plant default days. Instead of allowing students to make up their own minds, both meat and plant entrees were placed in the students’ view. One staffer acted surprised when a student wanted the tofu option in addition to the meat, potentially swaying the student’s perception of the animal-free dish. 

Previous attempts to introduce plant based meals had fallen flat, according to staff, resulting in reduced student interest. The approach of the current study — swapping out a single dish, instead of an entire station — proved so popular with students that staff at two universities created plans to incorporate the test dishes into their routine offerings. 

Successfully implementing plant-based defaults means engaging the staff who are tasked with preparation and serving the new options. Unlike in previous research into defaults, the researchers talked with staff concerning their experience preparing the plant-based offerings and found that generally dining hall workers enjoyed working with the new dishes.  

College Campuses at the Forefront of the Climate Battle 

This research is just the latest development that suggests Gen Z and college campuses have the potential to be leaders in the fight against climate catastrophe

As Gen Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — grow into adulthood, they are eating more plant-based foods. Already, 79 percent of the generation are choosing to go meatless at least one day a week, while 65 percent are looking to eat even more plant-based diets. Recent survey analysis shows that while most consumers, including Gen Z, are not committing to a fully vegan diet, the number of self-proclaimed flexitarians is on the rise

Shifting diets among Gen Z won’t just impact college campuses. “The rise of a new social norm among Gen Z – an emerging dominant consumer group – can provoke a massive ripple effect across food culture,” states the report. As of 2021, the generation had an estimated $360 billion in disposable income.  

Despite the success of the intervention and the willingness of Gen Z to eat plant based foods, “there are concerns from foodservice providers that implementing a plant-based default throughout the entire dining hall might lead to decreased satisfaction and students choosing to go elsewhere,” comments Braverman. 

Braverman and the team are determined. For their next research project, they want to challenge these assumptions by “show[ing] what a successful default plant-based dining hall looks like in action”. 

Potential for Massive Impact 

Despite the greatest level of student satisfaction stemming from plant based options, meat dishes are still treated as the norm, and it’s assumed that students would rather have entrees containing meat. “This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy as data shows that students eat more meat, without looking at the fact that the options students are presented with are predominantly meat-based,” points out Braverman. 

That’s why the potential for plant-based defaults is so massive – “If campus dining halls do defaults well,” reads the report, “it can result in a massive impact: there are an estimated 235 million university students globalls consuming 148 billion meals per academic year.”

This piece has been corrected to clarify that the research was conducted at three dining halls not four (a researcher is affiliated with a fourth institution). Ilana Braverman’s title has been corrected to reflect that she is now Chief Operating Officer of Greener by Default, an organization she co-founded. This piece has been updated to clarify plant-based default days.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »