Sustainable catering choices for Nicholas School events


Dear NS Faculty, Staff & Students,

In the Nicholas School, we pride ourselves on environmentally sustainable behavior. We engage in and encourage recycling, composting, and waste reduction. We endeavor to minimize our use of paper and other resources. Many of us carpool or bike to campus, turn off lights when they aren’t needed, combine trips to save gas, and drive fuel efficient vehicles. Another area where we can make a significant impact is in our food choices for NS events. Kudos to the folks at the Marine Lab for making strides in this area.

Some foods have a much greater environmental impact than others. In particular, animal products take a much greater toll on the environment than plant-based foods. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that “Producing all this meat and dairy requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water. It also generates greenhouse gases and large amounts of toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean.” In their Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health (, EWG reports on the environmental impacts of various food products and production systems. They note that “the most effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts from livestock is simply to eat, waste and produce less meat and dairy.” The Guide includes a handy chart that shows which foods entail the most and least greenhouse gas emissions in their production and use. The five foods with the greatest negative impact are lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon.

The United Nations Environment Programme stated in a 2010 report that “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.” (

With this information in mind, The NS Staff Sustainability Committee would like to encourage NS community members who plan events involving food to consider putting sustainability on the menu. Toward that end, we are planning to conduct an informal survey of local caterers to help identify the ones that offer the most sustainable food options, including plant-based items as well as pasture-raised, organic and local meats. In the meantime, we would like to offer several suggestions to help make NS events more sustainable.

  • Consider reducing or eliminating red meat and dairy products from your event menu. Replace these items with plant-based foods, or more sustainable animal products. Consult EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health linked above for more information about the environmental impacts of various foods. If you decide to include meat, choose organic, local, pasture-raised or grass-fed meats.
  • Make the most sustainable foods the centerpiece of your event. Label them and advertise them. List them specifically and emphasize them over the less sustainable options.
  • Is your event being held on a Monday? Consider making it a Meatless Monday event. More info at: and
  • Be sensitive to religious and moral objections to animal products. Some members of our community may avoid pork for religious reasons, for instance. Others are vegetarians or vegans for cultural, environmental, ethical or health reasons.
  • Offer a good variety of vegetarian and vegan options, including plant milks (soy, almond, etc.) with coffee/tea service, and label them so folks know they are vegetarian or vegan.

We hope you find these suggestions helpful. We look forward to sharing the results of our catering survey with you once it is completed.  Click here to go to our page containing links to articles on food and sustainability if you wish to learn more about this topic.

We believe that the Nicholas School can and should be a leader at Duke in encouraging sustainable behaviors that will help reduce pollution and reduce our carbon footprint. We hope you will join us in this effort.



The NS Staff Sustainability Committee