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Food for Climate

Students claim better information about the quality seal in cafeterias


Mensa Süd in the main building: Three round symbols light up on the information screen over the food service area for the “red lentils-green spelt-curry with apples and carrots” : a green traffic light (the more often, the better), a yellow light (vegan) and a tree. The first two symbols are explained in detail in the legend. Next to the tree it just says climate food. So what exactly is a climate meal? Do visitors of the cafeteria even know what it means?

This is exactly what students in the “Deutschlandstipendium-Themenklasse” (federal scholarship students topics class) “Sustainability & Global Equity”, a Humboldt University Foundation initiative, are researching. Their goal is to understand how climate food is perceived and to develop measures for communication. The group of scholarship holders consists of five Bachelor's and Master's degree students from various disciplines, including geography, European Ethnology, Physics and students in the “Integrated Natural Resource Management” Master's degree programme.

Seasonal ingredients for climate meals

The topics class is working in collaboration with Humboldt University's Integrative Research Institute on Transformations in Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) for one year on a self-selected research project. This provides students with the opportunity to work in a small interdisciplinary group to investigate issues about sustainability and global equity in science and society. Their work is supported by lecturers at the IRI THESys. The current topics class is exchanging information with the Studierendenwerk Berlin (students' union). Already last year, there was close cooperation in researching the topic of sustainability and the use of quinoa in Berlin cafeterias.

The Studierendenwerk has developed specific conditions and criteria. The climate tree is used as an in-house seal. It indicates that the production and delivery of the products impact the environment as little as possible. This primarily applies to vegan products; a climate food dish is therefore always vegan. Because of the energy costs during manufacturing, frozen foods do not qualify. However, the cultivation method is another key factor; rice is a good example: paddy-rice cultivation generates more methane emissions than dry rice processing. Climate foods are also increasingly cooked with seasonal ingredients.

Successful survey

To study how cafeteria visitors interpret the seal and whether they even notice it all, the students set up an online survey and held interviews in the cafeterias. Over the course of three weeks, 1700 people answered questions about the climate tree. For Antonia Sladek, a Master's student in European Ethnology, the number of participants was a complete surprise: “We did not expect so many people to get involved. Initially, we were thinking something like 100 – that is a good foundation.”

Maximilian Rittner, who participated in the Sustainability in Foods topics class last year, was able to extend his scholarship for another year. “We wrote a final paper last year; this year, we wanted to accomplish more and have an impact on the information policy of the Studierendenwerk Berlin when it comes to climate food.” Perhaps in the form of a detailed legend on the screens or explicit information on the Studierendenwerk website. For Antonia Sladek, a long-term goal is to kick-start a social debate on ecologically-sound eating and to include Berlin cafeterias even more in the regional supply concept.

Author: Antonia Huckle