Understanding the Cool Food Pledge

By: Cierra Peterlin

Are you familiar with the term “carbon footprint”? We sometimes hear these words being used by companies, individuals and groups who are conscious of the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses they are emitting into the atmosphere by way of their activities. In our world today, many people are looking for ways to lower their carbon footprint to help protect the environment. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our use of fossil fuels, some companies are opting to utilize solar or steam power while some individuals are carpooling, using public transportation or driving electric cars. It may be surprising but even the food we chose to eat can play a part in greenhouse gas emissions within our environment. During my rotation with the University of Maryland’s Campus Dining I was introduced to the idea of “cool” food and learned about the Cool Food Pledge. As a part of their sustainability initiatives the University of Maryland (UMD) has signed on to the Cool Food Pledge which is a commitment to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses that are emitted by the food they serve.

I wanted to learn more about what the Cool Food Movement truly is, so I spent some time researching and having conversations with UMD staff to fully understand it. After a valuable conversation with Assistant Director of New Initiatives, Allison Tjaden, I learned that the Cool Food Pledge is a commitment that organizations, businesses and communities make to lower the carbon footprint of their food production. As an initiative through the World Resources Institute (WRI), the signatories of the Cool Food Pledge are helped along the way to track the greenhouse gasses that are released in the total production of the food that they serve. 

“Members commit to a target of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food they serve by 25% by 2030 relative to a 2015 baseline —a level of ambition in line with achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. Informed by the pioneering work of the Better Buying Lab, our Cool Food team guides members through a strategic planning process to serve more climate-friendly food while meeting other dining-related targets.” 

The World Resources Institute

UMD was the first university to sign on to the pledge back in 2019. Other signatories of the pledge include numerous hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools, other companies and even entire cities. 

Being part of the cool food initiative is a commitment, but it means you get support to help you meet your goal. With a list of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by various food items’ production, the WRI helps each signatory track their emissions. As part of the process for UMD to reach the cool food goal, they have been introducing more “cool” food inspired specials in the dining halls on campus. Because one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions among food is the production of meat and other animal products, plant-based foods are heavily favored in terms of cool food menu items. Allison describes how one of the major ways UMD is acting to meet the cool food goals is by making plants such as vegetables, grains and beans more of the focus of meals. She talked about how promoting greater consumption of plant foods rather than prompting less consumption of meat and dairy has been more of a positive and well-received approach among students. Other environmental actions being taken on campus include:

  • food recovery by student-led Food Recovery Network,
  • nearly campus-wide composting of commissary, kitchen, and dining room discarded food items,
  • using sustainable and local foods in the dining halls from the Terp Farm or other local farmers, when possible, 
  • utilizing eco-friendly appliances and cooking practices and 
  • featuring cool food specials in different dining halls weekly. 
A graph of greenhouse gas emissions produced from the production of beans compared to beef. Source: https://coolfood.org 

One of the dining halls, 251 North Dining, uses recycled steam in its dishwasher. UMD’s campus also boasts multiple on-campus gardens which provide hyper-local foods to the dining halls during growing season as well a few “green roofs” which provide a swath of environmental benefits! In UMD’s Sustainable Dining Plan, written by Allison Tjaden, food purchasing practices to “reduce the number of deliveries to campus in order to reduce the carbon emissions” from food transport are outlined along with the plan to “purchase locally whenever possible to reduce carbon footprint and support the local economy.” There are many ways UMD Dining is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of the menu including offering new, exciting plant-forward dishes for students to try as well as reducing the portion size of meat in existing menu items. 

In terms of food, cool food specials are a fun way to get students thinking about eating for the environment. One of the specials that was offered during my time on campus was a poke bowl, which offered a flavorful and exciting dish with a small portion of sustainably sourced seafood (in this case, tuna). Allison mentioned that the executive chefs and culinary team on campus have been having fun experimenting with creating these plant-forward plates. 

Symbol used to identify a meal that meets cool food standards. Source: https://coolfood.org

Overall, the Cool Food Pledge on UMD’s campus advances awareness of environmental sustainability as it relates to eating. Since eating is something that each and every one of us needs to do daily, choosing cool foods and eating for the planet can be a major way for individuals and the larger collective to reduce our impact on the environment. UMD does so much for sustainability on their campus. I see the Cool Food Pledge and the efforts put forth by the dining staff to reach the sustainability goals as ways to ultimately change the eating attitudes of the students, faculty and staff. I was inspired by the pledge and became interested in looking into the carbon footprint of the foods I typically eat. Going forward I am also personally making a Cool Food Pledge and I challenge you to as well! Setting some personal goals to focus on eating local foods, more plants, less processed foods and less meat is something we can all pay attention to in our lives. Let’s work together with the Cool Food Pledgers and each other to protect our environment!

UMD’s sustainability icon. Source: https://sustainingprogress.umd.edu/take-action-now 






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