Nearly two years ago, World Resources Institute published “Creating a Sustainable Food Future,” a landmark report that linked human health to environmental stewardship. That message has steadily made its way closer to everyday conversations as some prominent foodservice chains now associate specific menu items with their carbon emissions. This is a perfect example of a food brand turning NGO thought leadership into consumer benefits.

Meanwhile, the environmental argument does not seem to be holding with meat alternatives, at least during pandemic times, as consumers stay within their comfort zones.

  • Sustainability talk spanned foodservice menus to beer steins.
  • USDA extended free school lunches through June.
  • New meat-alternative products entered a marketplace taking comfort in traditional meats.

“It could be any other novel food ingredient that’s come to the fore. It just happens to be plant-based right now.”

Nick Fereday, Rabobank (Food Dive)

Cool Food

This week saw a surge in discussions around the environmental impact of food production. Panera Bread drew the most attention for partnering with World Resources Institute to add a “Cool Food Meals” logo to menu items with low estimated carbon footprints.

  • World Resources Institute’s Daniel Vennard explained, “People are becoming more aware of climate change and its effects, but many still don’t know what they can do about it. Cool Food Meals helps people understand that taking action is as simple as what we eat.”
  • CNBC noted that Just Salad beat the chain to the punch with explicit carbon emission labeling, but Panera’s Sara Burnett pointed out, “Our mind hasn’t really wrapped around what that value is.”
  • The move is the most prominent adoption of The Cool Food Pledge, an international initiative that also claims the support of The United Nations Environment Programme, Sodexo and IKEA.

It’s certainly an innovative idea but we can’t get past thinking the logo resembles Mr. Yuk. Other major organizations also discussed sustainability issues this week:

  • In its Dairy Defined podcast, the National Milk Producers Federation addressed the importance of sustainability for farmers to keep farms in business across generations.
  • Bill Jones of Anheuser-Busch spoke on The Rice Stuff podcast about the company’s efforts to boost sustainability of ingredients for its flagship beers.
  • Food Processing reminded readers that not all efforts work out as planned. Substituting paper for plastic created new challenges for Nestlé’s packaged goods.

Free Lunch: Such a Thing?

It’s National School Lunch Week (NSLW), so it’s fitting that the USDA extended its regulatory waivers just in time, enabling schools to offer students free lunch through the June 2021 end of the school year. The extension includes in-school meals as well as pre-packed meals available for curbside pickup for students learning from home. 

  • According to the School Nutrition Association, the Kennedy administration established NSLW in 1962 “to promote the importance of a healthy school lunch in a child’s life and the impact it has inside and outside of the classroom.”
  • Politico’s October 13 weekly agriculture recap summarized the situation, noting that USDA is urging Congress to fully fund the program despite a big drop in student meals.
  • The Counter added, “The child nutrition waivers are crucially important in feeding hungry children at a time of widespread food insecurity,” citing its September article that documented nationwide hunger issues. 
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest directed attention to a State of Childhood Obesity piece featuring six fascinating interviews with school lunch professionals and their various creative problem-solving skills.
  • Packing school lunch from home got some attention, too. On October 12, Food Business News reported on a Streetbees study indicating a 10% rise in home-packed school lunches, “which has led to an increased use of pre-packaged snacks.”
  • On October 14, North American Meat Institute’s Casey Kammerle said in a guest blog for the American Feed Industry Association: “When it comes to a child’s nutrition, brain development and — of course — their taste buds, meat and poultry should always be considered when packing that lunch box each morning.”

More Products, Less Meat

Plant-based meat alternatives garnered attention with new products and line extensions, and an endless comparison to traditional animal-based meat products.

  • “Though the growth in plant-based meat looks gigantic compared to conventional, it is deceptive. After all, the U.S. meat market is worth about $95 billion at retail, as opposed to about $1 billion for plant-based meat,” summarized Food Dive’s Megan Poinski, explaining the comparative increases in meat vs. plant-based alternative sales. This well-researched piece is chock-full of interesting quotes and useful data. 
  • Food Business News documented the 50-product expansion of plant-based items under Kroger’s Simple Truth line. Products include meat and dairy alternatives as well as plant-based (and egg-free) baking mixes. Kroger’s head of private label cited consumer eating styles and health goals as the inspiration behind the extension.
  • The Good Food Institute said Kroger’s new Emerge Chick’n product signaled a “surge” in alt-protein expansion. 
  • Other interesting new product releases include The Roots drummer Questlove’s new “cheesesteaks” made with Impossible Meat (Food & Wine), Bolthouse Farms’ “carrot swaps” line of hot dogs, fettuccine and rice (Fresh Plaza) made from … carrots and Del Monte’s plant-based Pocket Pies (Del Monte). Say that five times fast. 
  • Comparing per-serving prices for meat vs. plant-based alternatives, vegconomist reported that Beyond the Butcher priced its budget line of burgers similarly to beef, asking, “is price parity finally here?”

“Big, iconic brands can be evergreen, but only if you are perpetually modernizing them. There’s a fine line between an icon and an antique.”

Sean Connolly, President and CEO, Conagra Brands (Consumer Brands Association)

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

‘The Polyester of Greens’

Bloomberg’s Justin Fox explains how 2020 might be the year that per-capita consumption of leaf lettuces finally takes over consumption of head lettuces. Fox documents many sides of the iceberg argument, citing The New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner’s 2018 manifesto calling iceberg the “superior green,” as well as filmmaker John Waters who called it “the polyester of greens.”

Smallholders, Big Role

The editors of the journal Nature posted advice to policymakers to focus on small farms. Nature editors reviewed international research consortium Ceres2030’s findings: “Many studies that conclude that smallholders are more likely to adopt new approaches — specifically, planting climate-resilient crops — when they are supported by technical advice, input and ideas.”

Regenerative Comes Full Circle

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, October 12, National Farmers Union celebrated the Native American roots of the modern regenerative farming practices. “As we rethink American history, we can thank Indigenous Americans for advancing practices that define sustainable agriculture and land stewardship.”

Grounded Beef

For those missing air travel lately, Singapore Airlines offered guests the opportunity to dine at its “Restaurant A380” aboard a stationary Airbus A380. The pop-up experience with meals by chef Shermay Lee sold out in just minutes; a recent effort from the airline to boost business amid the pandemic. For those who prefer to stay in, the airline is also offering first- and business-class dining experiences to enjoy from the comfort of home.

Sugar and Spice

Food Business News reported that things are getting spooky over at Dunkin’ this season with the release of the new Spicy Ghost Pepper Donut. “Halloween looks a little different this year, and so do our donuts,” said Jill Nelson, vice president of Marketing Strategy. Given a choice between inflight meals without the flight or spicy donuts at Dunkin’, we’d probably opt for the latter. But not by much …