Prior to beginning her doctoral research, Alexandra Stern, N22, spent most of her time in schools and cafeterias.
As a Nutrition and Community Outreach Coordinator for DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit dedicated to food access in Washington, D.C., she taught nutrition in schools and helped assess student approval of school lunch. The experience is what drove her to focus her Tufts dissertation on the sustainability of the U.S. National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
As a federally funded program with a $14 billion budget in 2019, NSLP provides free or low-cost nutritionally balanced meals to 40% of U.S. children each day. For schools to receive federal reimbursements they must follow specific nutrition standards including providing students with a range of options across food groups: milk, grain, fruit, vegetable, and meat or meat alternative.
“By studying the National School Lunch Program, I saw a unique opportunity to affect change,” Stern said. “The program reaches millions of Americans each day and can have a major impact on dietary behaviors and our country’s agricultural landscape.”
In her dissertation chapter, “Environmental impacts of the United States National School Lunch Program,” which was recently published in Communications Earth & Environment, Stern examines impacts of specific meal components and makes recommendations for changing school lunch regulations to reduce the environmental impacts of the NSLP.
“By using data from a huge number of actual lunches, she was able to show how both small and large changes in environmental outcomes can be achieved, while still meeting other goals for nutrition and acceptability,” Timothy Griffin, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and chair of Stern’s dissertation committee, said of her research.
A shift in school lunches could impact how students eat for the rest of their lives, and a change in diet can change the ways the environment is burdened by food systems, Stern said.
“It’s pretty well established that agriculture and the food system are major drivers of environmental degradation and climate change,” Stern said. “We need to do something to improve our food system – and one of these options for improving our food system to protect our planet, is changing our diets.”