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Cities flip food norms

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Nationally and globally, political leaders are waking up to the role animal agriculture and food plays in the climate and health crises. Now, New York City is trailblazing a healthier future by completely flipping the script on America’s harmful food norms—and serving plants by default.

In NYC, the need for better food norms is urgent—heart disease is the city’s number one killer. That’s why NYC officials are starting this change in the heart of their communities: the hospitals that help citizens get well. With help from our Greener by Default initiative, all 11 city hospitals are now serving plants-by-default lunches—and dinner is up next.

What this means is that patients automatically receive plant-based meals, but can still opt in to meat or dairy if they choose. This simple but powerful menu flip has led to a dramatic change—now more than half of eligible patients are choosing plant-based meals, even when meat and dairy are available! These numbers are staggering considering that only 1 percent of patients identify as vegetarian or vegan.

And while health is the primary concern for NYC’s hospitals, this change also benefits animals and the environment. In just 6 months, the hospitals have already served over 150,000 plant-based meals through their new menu—and over the course of a year, as the initiative expands to dinners, it will impact up to 800,000 meals. 

NYC’s new plants-by-default program boldly builds on an accelerating global movement. Many cities have taken steps to model sustainable eating: cities like Oakland and Cleveland have committed to Meatless Mondays, and San Diego and Washington, DC, have set meat reduction targets as part of their climate policies. In 2019, Amsterdam became the first global city to serve plant-based meals by default, and in 2021, the Denver Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Council followed suit.

Now by actually changing their defaults across an entire public institution, NYC has gone further than any other U.S. city toward establishing plant-based eating as the new paradigm. 

While NYC is beckoning in an exciting future, it’s also returning to its peoples’ roots: plant-based eating has been an integral part of food cultures and religions throughout history. In culturally diverse NYC, centering inclusive food choices on the menu is even more important. People of color are most likely to be lactose-intolerant and to suffer from diabetes and heart disease. Access to healthy plant-based foods through public institutions like hospitals and schools isn’t just a health issue; it’s a social justice issue.

Will your city be next?

If an average city follows in NYC’s footsteps by serving plant-based meals by default, it can expect to cut its food-related emissions by 40 percent and water footprint by 24 percent. A city serving 1 million meals per year could save the equivalent emissions of driving a passenger car over 1 million miles!

Through a simple menu flip, your city can be part of a crucial cultural shift in how we think about and serve food. But city leaders need to hear from constituents like you to kickstart this momentum.

It is so rewarding to be a part of getting such a monumental and important policy passed in my city. I hope that this decision will inspire and lead the way for other cities to do the same.

Denver resident Claudia Clifton, who facilitated the Mayor’s Sustainability Council’s DefaultVeg commitment Tweet

Grab a seat at the table for your city or county

Sign up with the Better Food Foundation to be empowered with the tools and resources you need to explore creating plant-based defaults in your community!