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Designing healthy, climate friendly and affordable school lunches

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This study aims to develop a model with which to build diets taking into account nutritional, climate change and economic aspects. A case study is used to test the proposed model, consisting of finding the optimal menus for school children in Spain from combinations of 20 starters, 20 main dishes and 7 desserts for a 20-day planning period.


An optimizing technique, specifically integer goal programming, is used as a means of designing diets which take into account the aforementioned aspects. Goal programming (GP) is used to design those menus that meet, or nearly meet, all the requirements with respect to caloric content, caloric share among macronutrients, nutrients to encourage and nutrients to limit, while reducing the carbon footprint (CFP) and the lunch budget. In order to have real, acceptable dishes, a school catering company provided information about the typical dishes they serve. The CFP of each dish was assessed, based on literature about life cycle assessment and CFP studies on food products. The nutritional value of each dish was obtained from databases, whereas prices were gathered from a wholesaler.

Results and discussion

After solving the goal programming model for several CFP and budget goals, the results show reductions with respect to the average CFP of between −13 and −24 %, and reductions with respect to the average budget between −10 and −15 % while maintaining the nutritional aspects similar to the average of the proposed menus. The results show that a wide range of budget is available, maintaining an almost constant CFP and meeting nutritional requirements to a similar degree; therefore, it is possible to avoid trade-offs between the CFP and the budget. The analysis of the dishes selected shows how the optimization model, in general, avoids the dishes which have a high CFP and high price and which are low in iron content, but high in protein and cholesterol.


Goal programming constitutes a suitable tool for designing diets which are economically, environmentally and nutritionally sustainable. Its flexibility enables specific issues to be studied, such as the existence of possible trade-offs between budget and CFP, attained by changing the budget and the CFP goals. By means of an iterative process, new dishes could be introduced or the existing ones could be improved, thus providing catering companies with useful information.

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The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación, Project CTM2010-18118.

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Correspondence to Javier Ribal.

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Responsible editor: Niels Jungbluth

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Ribal, J., Fenollosa, M.L., García-Segovia, P. et al. Designing healthy, climate friendly and affordable school lunches. Int J Life Cycle Assess 21, 631–645 (2016).

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