Healthy Us, Healthy Planet

By Cristen Scifo

When I used to think about making a positive impact on the environment, all that came to mind was the age old slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Now I can’t think about helping the environment without thinking about healthy dietary changes. As part of this internship, UMD College Park Dietetic Interns have the opportunity to spend two weeks in a sustainability rotation. Prior to starting, I honestly did not find the idea of this rotation to appealing. While I may not make a career out of being a sustainability dietitian, this rotation has had a large impact on my life.

The main focus of this rotation was determining if the current campus dining menu was compliant with something called the “Menus of Change Initiative.” This initiative was created by Harvard and The Culinary Institute of America to attempt to make food service institutions “greener.” It is centered around 24 principles, such as eating more fruits & vegetables, consuming less meat, increasing seafood-based meals, and buying local produce. I created an Excel sheet  to code menu items into several categories: grain-based, poultry-based, vegetable-based, seafood-based, red meat-based, or containing dairy, legumes, or potatoes. Once all menu items were coded, the Excel sheet was programmed to add up how many items were in each category and create graphs that provided an accurate breakdown of each station in each dining hall on campus.

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For me, the health benefits of following the Menus of Change Initiative were obvious. Eating more fruits,  vegetables and seafood, while limiting red meat and making smart dairy choices improves heart health and helps us to achieve a healthier weight. Buying these foods locally helps to stimulate local economies. However, I was confused and a little bit skeptical about how changing how you eat could help the environment. This project prompted me to do more research and find the explanation I was looking for.

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One of the main ideas I came across as I researched is that raising livestock takes a big toll on the environment. Knowing that too much red meat in one’s diet can also have a negative impact on health, I wanted to know more. According to John Hopkins School of Public Health, only 40% of farmland is used for growing crops. The rest is used for raising livestock. These livestock account for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and around 15% worldwide. The amount of livestock also leads to a large amount of pollutants ending up in water supplies. This often results in a drastic loss of ocean life.

One of the theories behind Menus of Change is that if more professionals in the food service industry limit the use of meat as the main focus of meals, less livestock will be necessary. This will allow more farmland to be used for growing crops meant for consumption, which can also help alleviate world hunger. These sustainable menus also tend to be “plant-forward,” meaning they highlight produce. Recipes may contain poultry, fish, dairy, or even small amounts of meat. Over time, this could result in a healthier diet for the population and reduced disease risk.

This rotation really impacted my entire way of thinking. I never really made a connection between the food we eat and important issues such as climate change. After completing my two weeks at the Sustainability Office, I started making significant changes in the way I eat and now follow a plant-based diet myself. I am truly thankful that this internship provided such an eye-opening experience!

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