An odd thing is happening today at some university and corporate cafeterias. Diners won't be able to order a hamburger or a slice of pizza. It turns out it's all in the name of saving the planet, one bite at a time. From member station KQED in San Francisco, David Gorn reports.

DAVID GORN: Back in a kitchen the size of a study hall, dozens of workers are busy preparing an intimate lunch for 5,000 people.

(Soundbite of pounding)

GORN: But today, that lunch will be a little different. In honor of Earth Day, the University of San Francisco dining hall will not be serving any beef or cheese to its horde of hungry students. Executive chef Jon Hall supervises the kitchen crew and says when you look into it, those foods actually have a huge effect on the environment, and the one-day ban is designed to raise awareness about it.

Mr. JON HALL (Executive Chef, University of San Francisco Dining Hall): And we don't do it every day. It's not like we never have hamburgers. I mean, there'd be a revolt. But what we do is a nice, tasty turkey burger with some fun toppings and, you know, hopefully the students get into it.

Unidentified Man: Turkey burger on wheat.

GORN: Getting into it doesn't seem to be a problem, at least a couple of days before the ban, as sophomore Mike Ascienta(ph) scarfs his turkey burger.

Mr. MIKE ASCIENTA (Sophomore, University of San Francisco): I like these burgers. I think they're pretty delicious. They have some pretty bomb teriyaki sauce in there. They just put some of that on there.

GORN: Or as fellow student Tristan DeBerg(ph) puts it…

Mr. TRISTAN DEBERG (Student, University of San Francisco): Well, I mean, how many cheeseburgers can you eat, you know?

GORN: A lot less, if Helene York has her way. She's the manager of the nationwide low carbon campaign for Bon Appetit, a food service company based in Palo Alto. The program reaches more than 400 cafeterias and cafes across the country, all of which are trimming out beef and cheese for the day.

Ms. HELENE YORK (Manager, Low carbon Campaign for Bon Appetit): The people who love meat shouldn't feel guilty about it. They should consume less. They should waste less food. I think that's something everybody can do.

GORN: So why should we do anything? What does food have to do with global warming? Plenty, says York. There is a growing movement in environmental circles to cut back on carbon emissions by cutting back on certain foods, because a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions are created by the food industry. Turns out, cows, sheep and goats make a lot of methane, as well as nitrous oxide. Add in the carbon dioxide produced when trucking food long distances, and you have an environmental polluter that some studies say rivals automobile emissions.

Ms. YORK: It's great that people are thinking about driving fewer miles, taking more public transportation, driving more efficient vehicles. But they should think about driving more efficient lunches, too. If they cut out meat and cheese for lunch, it'll have the same impact as driving fewer miles.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GORN: A few miles south at Kaiser Hospital in San Jose, Dr. Robert Gould is head of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has created a similar program that aims to reduce the amount of meat used by some Bay Area hospitals. Gould's group was motivated in part by concerns about climate change and its effects on public health. One benefit of the lighter diet, he says, is a lowered risk for diabetes and heart disease. But there's a bigger issue at play.

Dr. ROBERT GOULD (Physicians for Social Responsibility): Our patients, ultimately, their health depends not only on the food that they eat, but also the planet that they live in.

GORN: Climate Change, Gould says, is a public health issue that, for instance, could bring increased risk of respiratory problems such as asthma. So local and personal efforts to reduce emissions, he says, could have long-term health benefits for individuals and the planet, which makes giving up a cheeseburger one day a year seem a little easier to swallow.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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