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Issues of the Environment: Promoting plant-based diets in Ann Arbor to create a more sustainable community

City of Ann Arbor sustainability and innovations manager Missy Stults
City of Ann Arbor
City of Ann Arbor sustainability and innovations manager Missy Stults


  • Last September, City Council asked city staff to look at how Ann Arbor’s food-purchases and policies align with the A2Zero carbon-neutrality plan. The plan suggests spending over $200,000 promoting plant-rich diets over the next decade.
  • According to the September document, “A recent study shows that the GHG emissions associated with animal-based agriculture amount to two times the emissions associated with plant-based agriculture. In addition, the University of Oxford reports that globally, 83% of farmland is used for livestock production that provides only 18% of human caloric consumption and 37% of human protein consumption. Replacing this animal agriculture with plant crops could free up farmland that would remove an additional 8.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year for the next 100 years. Plant- based diets may also add healthy minutes to an individual’s life, reduce chronic disease risk factors, and improve mental health.”
  • A food purchasing audit released in March 2022 shows that in the past 3 fiscal years, Ann Arbor bought 1,188 food purchases for about $112,000. An additional $23,000 went to the Pepsi corp., and an average of $45,000 annually went to other food purchases. Missy Stults, Sustainability and Innovations Manager, listed 5 priorities that the city should consider as part of a deliberate “cultural shift” to procuring plant-based foods and healthier options: 

    • Through the existing contract with Pepsi or establishment of new contracts, re-work drink options at city vending machines and other points of sale to include more nutritious and health-enhancing choices, ideally locally sourced.
    • For food sold at city snack bars or distributed at city events, develop a list of preferred food items, with a focus on options that have low greenhouse gas emissions, provide plant-based alternatives, support the local food system and minimize wasteful packaging.
    • For catering of city events, develop a directory of preferred restaurants, caterers and other eating places with a focus on options that have low greenhouse gas emissions, provide plant-based alternatives, support the local food system and minimize wasteful packaging.
    • Engage with, educate, and train city employees on the value of sustainable food and ensure all employees who make food purchases are trained on the preferred food item and vendor lists.
    • Join the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council, have city staff attend those meetings and work with the council to establish a sustainability working group.
  • Missy Stults emphasized that ongoing exposure to plant-based foods can help normalize them and lead to acceptance, and she suggested nixing all beef and dairy-based food purchases by 2030 as part of the sustainability framework. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. The city of Ann Arbor will potentially spend about $200,000 over the next decade to promote plant-rich diets among its residents. I'm David Fair, and, at its surface, it may seem like a health-related measure, and it may turn out to be. But that's not the primary reason for the plan being put forth. What is? We're going to dig in a little deeper today with our guest. Missy Stults is the City of Ann Arbor's Sustainability Innovations manager, and thank you so much for the time today. And welcome back to WEMU.

Missy Stults: Thanks for having me, David. Always a pleasure.

David Fair: You know, I'm not entirely sure how long the idea has been kicked around, but I do know that in September of last year, City Council made a formal request for staff to look into how Ann Arbor makes its food purchases and whether the policies that guide that process are in line with the A2Zero Climate Action Plan. Is there a backstory to getting that request from City Council?

Missy Stults: Yeah, there's a few kind of historical things that this builds upon. One is the city has an environmentally preferable purchasing policy, which actually guides a lot of our decision making of everything from how we think about it and procure kind of food generally to when we're at a conference. Are we taking public transit and kind of encouraging employees to make more sustainable choices? But that's kind of a general policy that's out there, and there's not a lot of structure to it. It's kind of a framework, if you will. And then, of course, in June of 2020, Council passed A2Zero, our carbon neutrality and equity plan. And in that plan, one of the actions was promoting more sustainable food choices within the community. And so, those things kind of culminated together. And Council Member Nelson brought forward a resolution asking staff to think about really deeply how we buy food as a city, recognizing we don't actually buy a whole lot of food, that we think about those values and figure out how to apply them in our operations every day. And so, that was the intent of the resolution.

David Fair: Now that you've brought it up, what kind of food does the city purchase and for what purpose?

Missy Stults: Yeah, there's really two buckets. We looked at 2019, 2020, and 2021. And, of course, everyone listening will acknowledge that there are some pretty anomalous years with our most recent years of food purchasing. And generally, food was purchased for our largest purchasers, the parks department, and they were buying food for vending, for parks events, for the summer camps that exist. So those types of purchases are slightly different than the second category, which would be for employee events: things like mandatory training, where we might have some snacks available, or an employee recognition program when someone retires. We often bring a cake, for example, and bring people together to celebrate that individual.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Ann Arbor sustainability and innovations manager Missy Stults continues on 891 WEMU. Since Council asked you and other members of staff to look into the matter, what direction is this beginning to take as you start to look down the line?

Missy Stults: I love that question. Two directions. So, one is internal, of course, which was the intent behind this, and the other is external. So, we've actually been working quite a bit more externally. We hosted a sustainability forum last month talking about sustainable food. We've been working with some of our A2Zero collaborators to really promote sustainable food choices. And I want to pause for a second and acknowledge sustainable food is a really big term. And when we think about that, we actually think about multiple different categories that could be plant forward diets. So, not the elimination of meat, but having alternatives, you know, on the menu. So, if you've got a traditional hot dog, can you also have a plant-based hot dog? So people have choice. But it's also about local food, and it's about places that value their workforce and pay a living wage and places that treat animals humanely and justly and that have good land stewardship practices. And, of course, food that's nutrition. So, sustainable food can mean a lot of different things. So, I just want to frame that for a second because I too sometimes come at this with the vantage of what I think about animal rights and greenhouse gas emissions. But that's just my life experience and what I bring. So, big framework there. Getting back to your question, we've been doing external works, really engage the community around sustainable food. We've been working through something called A2R3, which is Ann Arbor Reduce, Reuse and Return, which is reducing single-use plastics. And some of our restaurants--Zingerman's and El Harissa--are partnering with us on that project. We've been doing a lot of community tracing work, and we're really looking forward to ramping that up. What's coming forward for the city itself, we're actually going to open up our contracts and start looking at providing options within all of our purchasing. We're going to be doing some employee education around sustainable food. And the goal is hopefully to work towards creating some sort of framework and even a point system that's really easy for city staff to use, and eventually for the public that identifies what options are on the market that really align with sustainable food choices.

David Fair: And I would imagine that to make significant environmental and ecological impact down the line, that you would also be looking toward more locally sourced foods and products?

Missy Stults: That's right. Yeah. And, actually, a lot of the purchasing that we already do is local. I'm trying to find the number here really quickly for you, but it's well over 50 percent. In many cases, it's closer to 70 percent of the money we already spend as a city is in local businesses. We want to continue to promote that. And, again, as I mentioned, we're not, as a local government, a really big purchaser of food, but we want to make sure that we continue to live the values that we hold. And we want to help the public do the same. Hopefully, over time, we're working with our collaborators, our partners, businesses, and the community to start identifying those who are offering local food healthy through sustainable food. So, with options for those who might want to have a vegan dinner or a vegetarian dinner, we want to make that easier for the public to know.

David Fair: Has there been any specific or even a broad impact assessment as to what kind of environmental and ecological impact this kinds of switch could make?

Missy Stults: Yeah, it's pretty significant. Globally, the United Nations report said about fourteen point five percent of the planet's total greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture. Here, in Ann Arbor, our analysis shows approximately seven metric tons per household of carbon dioxide equivalent or greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the food we purchase. And that's not just what we purchase. It's also what we don't use and then throw away. We have an enormous problem with food waste that's also contributing greenhouse gas emissions. So, anything that we can do to make sure that we right size the food that we buy and then lower the footprint of that food ecologically, environmentally, socially is going to have a really significant impact on our greenhouse gas emissions and also might help us improve health, mental health, physical health, emotional health. Those are great benefits.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment, and we're talking with Missy Stults. She serves as the City of Ann Arbor's sustainability and innovations manager. Now, Missy, among the priorities you've listed for City Council is to join the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council and forge a sustainability working group. You just mentioned the potential benefits of making this kind of culture shift. What do you envision that working group looking like, and how can it benefit the community at large?

Missy Stults: Great question. Well, the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council is such an important institutional group that we have in the community. The opportunity there is to be working side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow, with farmers and large purchasers and those working for a more sustainable food system to figure out how we can promote these practices throughout the whole county, how we can support more local farmers with growing organic and nutritious food and making sure that we have the buyers lined up to procure that product. And it's sending a signal to the whole marketplace that this matters. It's not just the city, which I know I've mentioned before isn't a large purchaser. But what happens when the county joins us and when maybe our public school systems start buying from more locally sourced places? Now we've got an entire ecosystem that's supporting the values with good paying jobs here in our own local economy, providing nutritious and healthy food. That sounds like a win-win to me, and I think that's the goal that we're kind of working for collaboratively.

David Fair: And as we work towards that grander vision, you have personally stated you would like to see the city forego all purchases of beef and dairy-based foods by the year 2030 as part of that sustainability framework. Has there, to this point, been enough community education, or even exposure, to win support for what amounts to a significant culture change?

Missy Stults: Yeah, that's a great question. We want to just frame this. This is one of the long term for the recommendations in the report, if we're really serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and being health forward in our food purchasing decisions. In this category of recommendations, we know we need to do a lot more work. We need to engage with the public more deeply. We need to understand the options that are available on the market. Full disclosure, I am a vegetarian, and I can tell you that the alternatives to chicken are really good and really strong. Beef is getting better. Dairy products are out there, but there are some areas in the market that aren't really strong. And so, there's a lot of work that has to happen in terms of engaging with the public, engaging with suppliers, to provide alternatives that taste great and that people want to participate in. We have some work to do on this recommendation, but the intent here is not to say all...what do I want to say? Let me back that up, David, for a second.

David Fair: Sure.

Missy Stults: I think the intent behind this recommendation is to acknowledge that there are many and growing numbers of alternatives to beef and dairy on the market, and that beef and dairy, especially produced in large commercial farming practices, have a really significant impact on the environment, on animals, you know, and that's something that we need to come to terms with if we're really serious about sustainability and about health and equity in this landscape. And so, the recommendation is to start kind of putting a spotlight on what that industry looks like and what opportunities there are to maybe make it a lot more sustainable.

David Fair: Well, it's going to be fun to talk in the years to come with you and find out exactly what kind of progress we're making. I thank you for the time today, Missy.

Missy Stults: My great pleasure. Thanks, everyone.

David Fair: That is Missy Stults, City of Ann Arbor's sustainability and innovations manager and our guest on issues of the environment. For more information on today's topic, visit our website at WEMU dot org. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commission. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD One Ypsilanti.

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