Reducing Scope Three Carbon Emissions Through Behavior Change & Menu Labeling

University of California, Berkeley

Date Posted: May 25, 2021
Submitted by: Samantha Lubow
Sustainability Topics: Research, Air & Climate, Food & Dining
Content Type: Case Studies
Office or Department: Dining Services

Project Overview

In October 2020, UC Berkeley’s Cal Dining implemented carbon emission labels to better inform customers about the carbon impact of the recipes served in the dining hall. Student researchers, Alejandra Marquez and David Sanchez used data from J. Poore & T. Nemecek’s study on “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” to assign a carbon emissions factor to each ingredient used in the dining hall. Using the dining hall’s menu management system, Eatec, each ingredient’s carbon footprint was added as a data point in its nutrient analysis, allowing the carbon footprint to be calculated for each recipe based on the portion size of each ingredient used in the recipe. With the data in place, customers can view an accurate estimation of the carbon footprint created for each recipe served in the dining hall. In addition, a stoplight colored labeling system was implemented onto the menu to quickly signal whether a recipe was low, medium, or high in its carbon footprint. Márquez, the student researcher active in the data management of this project studied the impact of these labels and concluded that Cal Dining prevented approximately 101.8 tons of C02 from entering the atmosphere annually with this labeling scheme. Cal Dining’s carbon footprint menu labels can be viewed on their website at


To better inform customers about the environmental impact of their food choices, Cal Dining wanted to look beyond vegetarian and vegan labeling to help students understand each recipe’s impact. Because Cal Dining already listed nutrient analysis and allergens on its menu, the carbon footprint labels could be added relatively easily into the existing system. Nationally, little research had been done previously about the impact of carbon emission labels on menus, and Alejandra Marquez saw an opportunity to provide research about their effectiveness. She worked with professor Kris Madsen at the Berkeley Food Institute to conduct an analysis of student food choice before and after the labels were implemented. She wrote her senior honors thesis with her findings.


The main goal of this project is to reduce the scope three carbon emissions of Cal Dining and, therefore, the university as a whole, especially since scope 3 emissions often represent the majority of an organization’s total greenhouse gas emissions (EPA). UC Berkeley is starting to report on scope 3 emissions within their annual reporting as available. Now, chefs at Cal Dining understand the carbon emissions generated by each dish and work towards creating menus with greater representation of low-carbon dishes. At the same time, students are becoming more aware of their carbon footprint and exerting their decision making power to hopefully choose fewer red or high-carbon dishes and, therefore, initiate a shift in demand. Working with Alejandra Marquez allowed Cal Dining to also meet its goal of engaging with the campus academic community to understand the impact the labels had on consumer food choice.


The project was led by Samantha Lubow, Sustainability Coordinator for the housing and dining department at UC Berkeley with support from two student employees, Marquez & Sanchez. First, the mechanism to track carbon footprint was identified and created in the menu management system, Eatec. Márquez & Sánchez used data from J. Poore & T. Nemecek’s research to assign each ingredient in the menu management system a carbon emissions factor. At that point Eatec could calculate the carbon footprint of each recipe. The marketing team in Cal Dining then developed a CO2 label and website to color code and explain the labeling system. The labels on the menu identify whether a recipe is low, medium or high. Since implementation, universities across the globe have reached out to Cal Dining to learn about how the system was implemented and have found the process highly replicable. Lubow is now consulting with several campuses about how to implement similar results with their menu management system.


The timeline for this project is as follows:

  • July 2020 - Assigning a carbon emissions value to each ingredient, coming up with the high, medium, and low thresholds, and inputting the data into our menu software (Eatec) to automatically calculate the emissions associated with each dish served.
  • August 2020 - Cal Dining’s marketing team created the carbon footprint logos and the online menu system with labels by each dish was set up.
  • September 2020 - Baseline data was collected using service records detailing which items were served in the dining hall before the labels were added to the menu.
  • October 2020 - Labeling system was implemented on online and physical menus and service records were collected. The same menu was served in September & October, making the data comparable.
  • November 2020 through May 2021 - Data analysis and drawing conclusions about the research.


This project was very cost effective and required little additional spending from the university. The main costs were paying two summer student workers who were instrumental in assigning an emissions value to each menu item and creating the emissions thresholds. This part of the project took them 2 months, during which they worked about 10 hours a week and were paid $16.50 per hour.


The impact of the menu labeling on consumer behavior was assessed by Alejandra Marquez, one of the summer student workers and a graduating senior completing her honors thesis. Her research suggests labeling the recipes with a red label affected consumers’ choices the most, while green and yellow didn’t really make an impact. This was concluded based on the fact that the number of green labeled dishes decreased, yellow increased, and red decreased, suggesting a move towards the perceived middle ground (yellow). Marquez estimates that this labeling scheme will prevent ~101.8 tons of C02 from entering the atmosphere.

Lessons Learned

Overall, students were very receptive to the carbon footprint labeling system and appreciated the transparency that Cal Dining showed on their menus. A survey conducted with 100 customers showed that 35% of students make decisions based on the carbon footprint icon. The largest impact from a carbon footprint standpoint was when students switched from a red labeled recipe to a yellow labeled recipe. Additionally, it was crucial to have Cal Dining’s chefs involved in the process as they were instrumental in collecting service records for the research and adding the labels to the physical menus. Their understanding of the recipe’s carbon footprint also proves helpful as they develop new menus and recipes conscious of which ingredients have the highest carbon footprint.


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