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Flip Your City’s Food Norms

Resources for City Activists

Nationally and globally, political leaders are recognizing the harms of industrial animal agriculture and are taking action by modeling a more sustainable and healthier food norm—one that centers plants.

Thanks to the work of committed grassroots advocates, many municipalities like Oakland and Cleveland have committed to Meatless Mondays, while others like 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, New York City has emerged as a trailblazer in this movement by actually flipping food norms across an entire public institution: the hospital system. By offering plant-based meals by default and giving patients the choice to opt in to meat or dairy through a partnership with the Better Food Foundation’s Greener by Default initiative, NYC is shifting hundreds of thousands of meals to plant-based each year—going further than any other U.S. city toward establishing a resilient new paradigm.

Over half of NYC’s eligible patients are choosing to eat plants, illustrating the power of this strategy. Because we eat according to what’s considered “normal,” putting plant proteins first can “nudge” people to choose healthier foods that cut our risk of heart disease and diabetes and lighten our environmental footprint. Studies have shown that this approach can reduce an institution’s food-related emissions by 40 percent and water footprint by 24 percent. If a city serving a million meals follows in NYC’s footsteps, it can expect to save the equivalent emissions of driving a passenger car over 1 million miles! 

Citizens look to their leaders to move communities in a more sustainable direction—but these leaders need engaged citizens like you to kickstart the process! The path to getting them on board will unfold differently in every city, so it’s important to research your decision-makers and the processes they use as you create your advocacy strategy. Identify which decision-makers may be potential allies, like those who have previously championed sustainability or healthy food initiatives, and what other stakeholders in your community might join your work to flip the script on our unhealthy food norms.

Ideas to Get Started

Here are a few ways advocates like you are finding success in their hometowns:

Scan your city or county’s existing sustainability and public health commitments first.

  • If your municipality has already made a related commitment, like a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, find out who is responsible for implementing the new policy, and try to work with them on incorporating plant-based defaults into their plan to meet—and exceed—their existing goals. You can offer to give a presentation or even sample food for them and their team.
  • If your city or county is drafting or updating a Climate Action Plan (CAP), you can submit feedback (and organize your community to join you) during the process. In San Diego, a coalition of 20 local groups led by the Better Food Foundation recently achieved a commitment to reduce the city’s meat- and dairy-related emissions and water footprint by 20 percent in the CAP. Note that these plans usually aren’t binding, so you’ll have to continue to advocate for implementation of the strategy after it’s included in the final plan.
  • Even if there isn’t a sustainability plan in the pipeline, you can start by attending and speaking at events hosted by your municipality to network and get on their radar (like this forum hosted by the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan).

Get your city council to pass a resolution or ordinance committing to plant-based defaults for city-sponsored events and institutions, or ask your mayor to issue an executive order.

  • This strategy involves finding a friendly policymaker to introduce your proposal, drafting it for them, and garnering support in your community for submitting public comments and attending hearings. Working with a broad coalition of environmental, animal protection, and public health groups, Chloë Waterman from Friends of the Earth recently moved the city of Washington, DC, to pass an ordinance committing to a 25 percent reduction in food-related emissions by 2030, while advocates in Berkeley won a bold commitment by the city to reduce its animal-based food purchases by 50 percent by 2024.
  • One easy, but nonbinding, way to grow momentum for your work is to ask the mayor of your city to issue a proclamation in support of plant-forward eating around a relevant holiday or event, like DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently did in advance of DC Veg Restaurant Week. This can help you get traction in the media and get the attention of other political leaders.

Coalitions are key!

Collaborate with groups from the environmental, food justice, social justice, labor, and other movements to work together toward shared goals, and together, you’ll have stronger connections and a louder voice with policymakers. Plant-forward menus can become a piece of a larger framework (e.g., the Good Food Purchasing Program, or GFPP) that aims for a more sustainable, just, and humane food system. For instance, San Francisco’s GFPP commitment includes goals for reducing meat at jails and hospitals.

Start small, and build up!

  • If you’re receiving any pushback from city leaders, consider smaller steps with individual committees or councils. Joining citizen councils, like Food Policy Committees or Sustainability Councils, will allow you to advocate from within for internal policies. For instance, activist Claudia Lifton in Denver joined and successfully encouraged the Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Council to adopt DefaultVeg for all of their events, and is now working to expand the commitment to other departments and agencies.
  • You can also get creative with implementing plant-based defaults throughout your community. Coffee shops around the world are starting to serve oat or other plant milks by default, instead of dairy, and many local eateries are thriving with plant-forward menus. Check out our Milestones and Meetups toolkit for a few ideas—the more local businesses, clubs, nonprofits, and other community allies you bring in, the more sway you’ll have when you approach municipal leaders. It will be easy for them to see how the norm is changing around them—essentially leveraging wins into bigger wins!
  • As you’re working through your strategy, keep in mind the power of public momentum: whenever possible, for example, write letters to the editor, submit op-eds, find influential voices to speak publicly in support of your goal, conduct outreach at local events, or even team up with local restaurants that serve plants by default to showcase their menus at a special event for the media and policymakers. Use your creativity to find avenues to make your work more visible, which will ultimately help shape food norms around you, even before your political leaders are on board.

Tools and Resources

Take the next step

Reach out to us at [email protected] to chat with our team about getting started, get plugged in with other activists like you, and share your progress along the way so we can spotlight your successes!