The first step in using CHEFS on your campus is to familiarize yourself with the tool and the various ways it can be used to reduce carbon emissions and educate students.
Footprint accounting “snapshot:” The ultimate goal of CHEFS is to create a comprehensive database of food items so that a campus’s entire food purchase for a given time period can be analyzed and considered in climate action planning. However, this is a long term goal because most of the products served on campus have not yet been studied by the North American life cycle assessment community. Currently, CHEFS contains a small database of products based on peer‐reviewed, public data, and we are adding to that database as more studies become available. Your campus may choose to begin by taking a “snapshot” account of your purchases of those products in the database to gain an understanding of how the life cycle impact of food purchasing compares to your oncampus greenhouse gas footprint. Additionally, beginning this process with a small subset of products will allow you to develop the relationships and procedures needed to work within your campus purchasing and dining systems.
Decision support: In addition to measuring the impact of a menu over time, CHEFS can help decision makers analyze the carbon costs and benefits of two different foods. For example, eventually CHEFS will help a food service manager decide if it will produce more carbon emissions to serve macaroni or pizza. The food items currently in the database are much more general, like “tomatoes” and “cheese,” but they can still help managers begin to understand what types of food present low carbon choices.
Research opportunities: There is an incredible range of research projects that can be organized around the CHEFS tool. Whether you are interested in applied, on‐campus projects or broader life cycle assessment studies, and whether you are looking for projects for an undergraduate class, a masters project, or an even more comprehensive study, we can suggest relevant research questions. For example, an undergraduate research class at Duke University recently completed a study that determined that student dining habits can be affected by eco‐labeling in the campus cafeteria and that a color‐scale labeling system was most effective.
Broader campus conversation: The most abstract but perhaps most exciting element of the CHEFS program is its potential as a catalyst for deeper, more data‐driven conversations around sustainable foods on campus. For example, the campus paper might want to cover the results if you use CHEFS to analyze the impact of 10 common items your campus serves. Or signs or product labels you post in the cafeteria can start a number of interesting student conversations.
Your second step will be to, in any order, define your goals for the project and engage any relevant stakeholders on your campus. Based on the above uses of the CHEFS tool, you might say that your goal is to work with a statistics class on campus to measure your campus purchases of 10 items in the CHEFS database; then analyze how that impact relates to your campus’s standard greenhouse gas inventory. You might then want to work with campus media when the student project is done in order to spur further conversation around the campus’s climate action planning process. In order to make this project successful, you would want to plan discussions with statistics professors, the person in charge of the cafeteria’s menu creation or purchases, any campus sustainability staff, and maybe even a few interested students. Working with all of the relevant stakeholders will greatly improve your experience with the project, as the sooner they are on board the more they can help you streamline the process. You can also consider inviting stakeholders to the table who may not be able to contribute to the process but who could be influenced by the outcome. For example, if you are working with a class to answer a broader research question that does not depend on your campus’s purchasing habits, having the dining service manager at the table anyway could mean that the results of your project are more likely to be applied in decision‐making to reduce your campus’s upstream emissions.
The goal setting phase of the project should not be undervalued. Knowing exactly why you are undertaking this project and what you hope to get out of it will allow you to only spend time collecting the data that you will actually use. Like completing a greenhouse gas inventory, if you lose track of the goal of the project, it can be all too easy to become mired in an ever‐increasing data mining activity.
The next step is to begin collecting data. Of course, exactly what this requires will depend on your goals. Some schools have chosen to collect information about as many purchases as possible even though the CHEFS database currently can only analyze a limited number of products. This method allows a campus to extrapolate and provide better context for their results. However, this is an extraordinarily arduous data‐gathering task if the campus’s menu software system or STARS data collection process cannot easily generate the needed reports. A more achievable goal for most schools is to collect data on a limited number of purchases. To analyze an item in CHEFS, for whatever goal, you only need to know the product name (i.e. tomatoes), the amount purchased in pounds (future updates will allow volumetric and other quantities), and the distance from distribution warehouse to campus (the tool provides a default of 50 miles). However, you may also record the brand, special attributes from agriculture, processing, storage, or packaging of the product, and any notes you have. Future updates to the tool will incorporate emissions factors to differentiate between these special factors, such as organic agriculture or low‐impact packaging.
Our guidelines for completing a GHG inventory apply here as well: make your requests for data as specific as possible and record when you spoke to each person in a log. This will help when the search for the right number circles through several campus offices. Also, if you are using CHEFS to account for the impact of specific purchases, knowing where you have been able to find that data will help in any future, more comprehensive studies.
The natural next step is to analyze your data. Again, this process will of course depend on your project’s goals. Here are some questions that schools have found helpful:
- How does this impact compare to our greenhouse gas inventory?
- What percentage of our total food purchases have we analyzed?
- If this is assumed to be a representative sample of our food purchases, how would the emissions of all purchases compare to our GHG inventory?
- What category of food is the most impactful? In raw eCO2? In carbon intensity, eCO2 per unit purchased?
- How are our specific products different than the CHEFS defaults? (ie local, organic)
- How could we reduce these emissions sources?
- What questions does this data raise for our campus and the food system as a whole?
- Who needs to know about these conclusions?
Avoid the common pitfall of not allowing enough time for this part of the process, as it may take several tries to figure out what the best context or type of analysis is for your research question and data gathered. You may also find that you need to go back and gather some additional data points once you start to evaluate and draw conclusions.
Hopefully, by this time in the process, you will be excited for the next step: communicate your results to develop a broader conversation on your campus. This will depend on your goals and your results, but your options include publishing a summary, working with campus media, start labeling some foods in your cafeteria, and including food related further study or action into your climate action plan. It is important to include campus decision makers and other stakeholders in your outreach effort, as the hope is that this project will leverage future study and work in the area of reducing dining service greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, don’t forget to share your results with Clean Air‐Cool Planet! We are always looking for more stories and examples of how CHEFS is being used on campuses, and we are happy to advise you on any stumbling blocks. Please contact Anna Mika at email@example.com.