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Climate change has been driven by human behavior. That’s why long-term success in halting it must involve large-scale changes in how we live.

Most of the behaviors we associate with preventing climate change are totally inaccessible to younger children. They can’t buy electric cars or redirect their retirement accounts away from fossil fuels.

They can’t even vote.

Limiting our kids by only offering them these types of solutions can leave them with a sense of powerlessness and futility. But there is a solution within their power, and that’s taking control of how and what they eat.

Making the connection between food and climate change could reap huge benefits for our children — and for all of us. As more states and cities officially integrate climate change education into their school curricula, we urge them to include discussion of food systems and personal eating habits as essential parts of the climate story.

The role of food systems in climate change is often ignored, as discussions tend to focus on energy production (wind turbines) and transportation (electric cars).

Yet food is a huge part of our global economy and must also be a huge part of any potential climate solution. Food waste in particular is an area of massive concern: The energy that goes into producing food that is wasted is the equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. By comparison, all air travel and transport globally added a little over 1 billion tons of CO2 at its 2019 pre-pandemic peak.

Most of the behaviors we associate with preventing climate change are totally inaccessible to younger children. They can’t buy electric cars or redirect their retirement accounts away from fossil fuels.

Thus, encouraging more plant-based (and less-processed) foods and reducing food waste are two of the most effective approaches we have for addressing climate change, according to Project Drawdown, one of the most comprehensive studies on potential climate solutions. Combined, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions almost 22 times more than the switch to electric cars.

Involving children in this discussion could be an important part of building a sustainable future, especially as more states and cities officially integrate climate change into their teaching, as New Jersey has. Food is far more tangible to children than discussions of better building insulation or renewable power generation, which are both invisible on a daily basis and entirely outside a child’s control.

Better nutrition education — including promotion of better lifelong health — is badly needed in our schools for many reasons anyway.

Younger people are more open to this than adults who are set in their ways. About 65 percent of today’s children and teens “find plant-forward eating appealing and 79 percent would go meatless, one to two times a week now or in the future,” according to a study from food services company Aramark.

Related: One state mandates teaching climate change in almost all subjects – even PE

We’ve started working out how to bring all of this information to kids in New Jersey’s classrooms. As part of our work for Rutgers University’s Department of Family & Community Health Sciences and the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative, we’ve been piloting lesson plans that present information on both food waste and plant-based eating.

We’re teaching kids how a bean burrito can be healthier and have less of an impact on the environment than a meat taco — and be delicious. And why a piece of fresh fruit is a climate-friendly snack because highly processed snacks like flavored chips take so much energy to produce.

These lessons take students through the basic science, describe food systems from initial farming through composting of waste and every step in between, and tie all the concepts back to climate change and empowering kids with action steps that can make an impact.

These are interactive, hands-on curricula. For example, we’ve created a video game in which the central challenge is finding a way to produce food for an entire community given limited space and resources. Kids quickly learn the true nutrient values of plants vs. livestock and the costs that go into producing each.

We’re not telling kids to avoid animal foods completely, and we’re careful to discourage judgment — we will gain nothing by asking children to lecture their parents. But we are teaching students that they can be part of the climate solution, showing them the personal and global benefits of eating mostly plants and encouraging them to avoid peer pressure and marketing campaigns that discourage healthy eating.

Related: COLUMN: The world is waking up to education’s essential role in climate solutions

When we talk about these issues with students, we see an immediate response. When we do food waste audits at schools to help them figure out how much food they’re throwing away, students come forward nearly every time, asking questions and offering to help find solutions.

They recognize the importance of this issue and, in many schools, they’re the ones pushing for change. Some students have self-organized to start “share tables” in their cafeterias on which they put unopened food items to be consumed by other students or donated to local food banks.

We’ve also been careful to work closely with teachers to develop lesson plans that meet, and integrate easily, into national and multistate standards for science curriculum. When we complete our pilots, we plan to start releasing the lesson plans as open-source tools available to schools nationwide.

We feel real hope for change when we work with our children. And engaging with them on the climate benefits of sustainable food choices can give them real hope too.

Sara Elnakib is chair of the Department of Family & Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University and research associate with the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative.

Jennifer Shukaitis is an assistant professor and educator at the Department of Family & Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension.

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