Head Chef Daniel Thillerup and his freshly baked bread, in the kitchen at Kalvebod © C40 Cities

C40 Executive Director Mark Watts went back to school this week to learn about all things sustainable food

It was inspiring visiting Kalvebod Food School in Copenhagen this week, not only to hear how the city has reduced carbon emissions from school meals by a quarter but to see that it is the school children who are designing menus, cooking meals, and even cleaning up after themselves.

The wood and steel rotunda is such an unusual structure for a school that we almost cycled past it.

It is an important but little-known fact that in most metropolises, the city council is the single biggest purchaser of food, serving meals in schools, care centres, hospitals and to those most in need. That makes city governments critical players in enabling residents to enjoy healthier diets and tackle greenhouse gas emissions associated with food consumption. In Copenhagen’s case, food constitutes around 19% of the city’s total carbon footprint.

Food ready to be served at Kalvebod Food School © C40 Cities

In 2019, Copenhagen set the target of reducing food-related emissions from all public institutions by 2025 – that’s 70,000 meals a day and procuring 90% organic food. Between 2018 and 2022, Copenhagen reduced carbon dioxide emissions associated with public meals by 17.6%, meaning that the city is on track to reach its target of reducing food-related emissions by 25% by 2025.

Encouraging a shift to healthier and more sustainable diets is notoriously difficult, so it was inspiring to see how successfully this has been achieved in Copenhagen. Lunches in Kalvebod school now only include meat one day every two months, and even then, the serving is reduced from a previous average of 80g per portion to just 30g.

Posters showing types of food and where they come from, with Head Chef Daniel Thillerup in the background © C40 Cities

In a society with relatively high levels of meat consumption – pork and bacon in particular – most children will still eat meat at least once a day. But the plant and fish-based school meals are a chance to improve the breadth of nutritional input, which is of great benefit to growing bodies.

This has been achieved without any reduction in the number of children taking school meals whilst maintaining protein levels and improving the overall nutritional value of the meals.

One of the reasons why children and parents have backed the changes at Kalvebod school is because of the way that children themselves are involved in preparing and serving the meals: for one week each year in grades four and five (around ages 10 and 11), each child joins the kitchen staff for what amounts to a work placement. That age group was chosen because they tend to be the most curious and willing to get stuck in.

As Daniel Thillerup, the highly skilled and passionate Head Chef, told us, the children are not only taught to prepare every part of the daily lunch using the same kitchen knives, utensils and electrical equipment as the adult chefs, but they are also encouraged to design a day’s menu that they will serve to their peers.

Working in the kitchen © C40 Cities

Each meal is described to the students before they tuck in so everyone knows what they are eating. Parents are informed a month in advance so they can choose whether or not to sign their child up for that week’s menu, as most children pay for their meals. One of the benefits of reducing the quantity of meat in Kalvebod’s school lunches is that it has helped to keep costs down to just three or four euros per meal.

Food is taken communally in small groups, with everyone encouraged only to serve themselves what they need to minimise food waste. That doesn’t mean nothing is leftover. Indeed, the quantity of food waste is the chef’s best indicator of how well-liked each meal is. As Daniel explained, it is quite hard to get feedback from children beyond what they like or don’t like. But children are actively encouraged to provide feedback if they’re not happy with their meal so that teachers and kitchen staff can try to tease out what isn’t working – often, it might just be one ingredient.

Children’s palates are often quite different to those of adults, so whether or not the teachers like a certain meal is often not a useful guide to how the students will respond. That said, I was hugely impressed by the jackfruit and coconut curry with cauliflower rice, and judging by the clean bowls, so were the students.

Freshly baked bread in the kitchen of Kalvebod Food School © C40 Cities

Equally important to engaging children in improving school meals has been a deep programme of training and support for kitchen staff. Nina Sindballe-Lauritsen from Madliv, a consultancy that manages this part of the Food Schools programme on behalf of the municipality, explained that since 2020, they have trained 3,750 chefs and other kitchen staff.

Rewarding and recognising new skills is a critical part of achieving buy-in, including providing a diploma upon completion of the course, regular communications about the programme, and an annual celebratory dinner attended by the Lord Mayor. There is now a 1,000-recipe book to accompany the Food Schools programme.

In the 20 years I have been working on urban environmental sustainability, Copenhagen has always been a world leader, from enabling half of all trips to work to be taken by bicycle to investing in an electricity grid that is almost entirely powered by wind turbines and solar power (the city does still burn waste to supply its district heating system).

Working out how residents in one of the wealthiest cities in the world can reduce their carbon footprint from personal consumption is the next frontier and a challenge that the city’s inspiring Lord Mayor, Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, has put at the forefront of her climate policy. Based on what I saw today, Copenhagen is putting itself out front again.

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