Foodprints for the Future

Student group “nudges” food choices to fight climate change

“What should I eat for dinner?”

It’s a question we ask ourselves daily, and one that requires us to balance several factors: health, convenience, money, cravings. But something we may not always consider is our dinner’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A group of graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania sought to change that mindset, bringing climate change to the dinner table. The team of students, calling themselves the Nudgetables, recently won Dickinson College and Rare’s Behavior-Centered Design Challenge for their solution that helped students understand the climate impact of their food choices.

The competition was geared toward students and staff from universities across the U.S., with the premise that climate change solutions must involve significant behavior change. The competition asked teams to take on a current climate change issue affecting American colleges and universities and specifically, to “create a behavior-centered solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from meat consumption through increased adoption of plant-rich diets on higher ed campuses.”

Going into the challenge, the Nudgetables team wanted to know how they might quantify reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Marc Rauckhorst, a student in University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences program, the first of its kind in the country. So, Rauckhorst and his teammates – Robert Bulford, Bella Dai, Mariagiulia Lauro and Ladasa Tiraviriyapol – created greenhouse gas dining scores for every food item. The scores were put on dining hall menus, much like you might find calories on a menu. These scores were intended to help students understand the climate impact of their food choices.

The team also spoke with Dickinson college students to learn about their preferences and attitudes regarding the environment. Rauckhorst said there was a general desire among students to “do better,” but the dining options available were based on convenience – in other words, what was easiest for students to grab on the run. The team observed a critical value gap: The sustainability priorities on campus did not align with students’ dining decisions.

The Nudgetables bridged this gap by making convenient options the ones that were also more climate conscious. They put “the most environmentally friendly meals in the most common place in the dining hall, so that the students choosing for convenience can choose what’s best for the environment,” said Rauckhorst.

In this way, the team placed the least-environmentally friendly menu items – like meat and out-of-season produce – to the least-convenient locations. This is an example of “choice architecture,” a behavioral science strategy to encourage certain actions while discouraging others.

For lasting behavior change, the Nudgetables wanted to ensure they weren’t only providing substitutions but that students understood that they were making better choices for the environment. To achieve this, the team put climate-conscious meals on green plates, to stand out from the standard colored plates. This allowed others to see who made climate-conscious dining choices from a quick look around the dining hall, creating a social norm.  

The Nudgetables appreciated the opportunity to apply the concepts they’re learning in the classroom to a real challenge. Rauckhorst said this competition let him better understand how little it takes to make a huge difference, and that even small meal choices have an impact.

Earth Day Network’s Foodprints for the Future team spoke at the event, highlighting the importance of eating plant-rich diets to fight climate change. We all have the power to shift our behavior and make climate conscious dining decisions. Check out the Foodprints resources for tips on how to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet.