State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Challenges of Planning for a Sustainable Dinner Party

By Charlotte Munson, Stephanie Main, Lauren Ritchie and Carolina Rabbat

Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development is a course that challenges students to consider issues related to climate change under a different lens. There is no straightforward solution to climate change, which can be thought of as a “wicked problem”: it is multi-faceted, with multiple stakeholders involved, and carries a large economic burden.

Our professor, Ruth DeFries, encouraged us to use a systems thinking approach to solving wicked problems, and introduced us to the Theory of Change methodology. Systems thinking analyzes how a system’s individual parts interrelate over time and interact with other systems. Theory of Change is a form of project planning that takes into account the early and intermediate actions required to bring about a long-term goal. A key feature is its collaborative nature, addressing stakeholders through a structured, participatory process.

We had the chance to put some of these ideas into practice to address the ‘wicked problem’ of sustainable eating by planning and preparing a sustainable dinner menu. To create our sustainable meal, we divided our considerations into the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, environmental and social sustainability. We weighed the costs and benefits of several metrics related to each pillar to arrive at our final menu, which would be comprised of a main dish, side dish, beverage and dessert, with four different options for each category.

From an environmental standpoint, we wanted to ensure that we took water usage and greenhouse gas emissions into consideration. To account for water use, we chose the five main ingredients in each of the dishes and we researched how much water was used during the production of each ingredient and added them together for a water use total for each dish. We then used an online emissions calculator to assess the greenhouse gases emitted during the production and transportation of each ingredient. Due to our time constraints, we were unable to create metrics for other environmental sustainability factors that we deemed important such as food waste, packaging waste and energy usage. Nonetheless, we still kept these factors in the back of our mind when selecting a dish.

Economically, it was very important to us that the meal that we chose was economically reasonable and accessible. Similar to our environmental methodology, we chose the main ingredients of our four dishes and researched the average price for each ingredient, using’s price tracker. This allowed us to reach a conclusion about which meal was the least expensive. We also ensured that our ingredients were accessible and available to be purchased. This was important to us because we wanted to create a meal that was not only sustainable, but one that was also economically feasible and replicable for the average population. An interesting addition to our economic methodology was to research the average price that a middle class New York family spends on dinner per person and we used that as our price point for the meal.

The social aspect of the sustainable meal ended up being a very prominent part of our decision-making process. The parameters were a little different than they were for our economic and environmental considerations, because we were measuring things that were not always straight quantitative data. For example, one of our parameters was a “deliciousness” factor, so we had each person rank what they thought was delicious. “Deliciousness” is subjective, however, and therefore based on individual preferences. We quickly saw that every person has different likes and dislikes. Our prioritizing factor however, was that everyone needed to be able to eat the meal, which means we took into account allergies, diseases and dietary restrictions. We also took into account the community aspect of the meal, ensuring that everyone was assigned a job to help make our dinner come to fruition. We considered a healthy meal to be necessary for the social aspect, so we chose ingredients that were fresh and nutritious. One of the issues sustainable eating is that cheap, processed foods are often unhealthy,  while the more nutritious foods are higher in price and therefore out of reach for many people.

In the process of designing our sustainable menu, we realized that some of our most basic assumptions about sustainable food systems were much more complicated than we may have thought. Organic agriculture doesn’t produce the same yields as conventional produce, such that it may not be enough to feed a growing population. Eating local isn’t necessarily more sustainable, either, since food miles contribute to only a small percentage of an item’s carbon footprint. Grass-fed or free-range beef produces significantly more GHGs than intensively raised livestock.

The complex tradeoffs involved in considerations such as these taught us that there is no singular ‘correct’ way to eat sustainably. In the end, we learned that the choices involved with sustainable eating can seem overwhelming, but that the act of educating oneself on any aspect of the food we eat can be a valuable lesson that leads to asking more questions, seeking out information, and, hopefully, making improvements in our lifestyles as we go.

Tamar Haspel, a journalist from the Washington Post also joined the dinner. Her main work is about food policy issues, and recently she also published an article about the sustainable dinner party.


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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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