How we averted 130,000 animal deaths (in expectation) with a volunteer campaign.

post by JamesOz · 2021-04-05T07:50:01.147Z · EA · GW · 19 comments

Contents

  Summary
  Context (and why we chose this campaign)
  What we’re actually doing
  What happened in Hackney
  How much impact is this going to have?
  What we learnt during the campaign
  Assumptions in our calculations
  Uncertainties I have or improvements that could be made in my calculations
  Conclusions
None
19 comments

Thanks to Aaron Gertler for feedback and suggestions on this post.

Epistemic certainty in my model and calculations: About 70-80%. There are some factors that I didn't include in detail as I thought the time required to include them accurately would be greater than I wanted to spend on this write-up.

 

Summary

 

Context (and why we chose this campaign)

Animal Rebellion UK has been running a campaign to get local councils in the UK to introduce 1-2 vegetarian days per week in local schools. Most UK primary schools fall under the remit of a local council, which means that influencing just one decision maker at the local level can bring about menu change across all of its primary schools - which, at a large council, can be as many as 450. This is unlike secondary schools, which generally have much more catering autonomy, and would more often have to be approached individually or in groups. 

We chose this campaign because:

 

What we’re actually doing

We’ve designed a campaign that volunteers can run easily, focused around liaising with local decision-makers and building support from people in the local community. Predominantly, we’ve created resources such as a spreadsheet to keep track of councillors, email templates and documents on how councils work to better support local volunteers running this campaign. We’re also hosting workshops, talks and regular monthly check-in calls to see how people are getting on and offering support when needed. We’ve been running this campaign since November 2020 and now it is being run in roughly 40 councils across the UK by groups or individuals, out of the total 404 councils that exist in the UK. 

Volunteers then are asking local councillors and relevant Cabinet members to instate two vegetarian days per week across all primary schools. Our rationale for this is that if we asked for one day per week, we believe councils would try to negotiate down to less. We’re asking for two days per week in hope that the result won’t be less that one day per week meat-free. Whilst we would ideally ask for two fully plant-based days, we’re not able to due to national school food legislation that requires schools to serve dairy every day and meat three times per week. The key arguments we gave to why this change was necessary was to mitigate climate change, serve children healthier food and reduce costs for councils. We didn’t use animal welfare arguments at all as we believed (and were advised by ProVeg) they would be ineffective.  In retrospect, we’re very confident that the combination of climate change, health and costs were extremely effective in persuading councillors and animal welfare would have detracted from that message.

Once a council commits to a certain policy like one day per week meat-free, we pass them over to ProVeg UK who have been doing similar work for the past two years. ProVeg UK will then help the council implement this change by assisting with menu consultation, retraining of chefs and PR support. Currently we have handed over Hackney Council, who have committed to one day vegetarian per week starting September and also Swansea Council, who are interested but have not committed to a specific policy yet. We’ve got another 2-3 councils who are quite interested and want to speak further with ProVeg so we are hopeful we’ll get similar commitments to Hackney in the next few months.

 

What happened in Hackney

Hackney was our pilot project, being the first area where we decided to run the campaign. This was remarkably lucky as Hackney Council caters their school meals in-house (meaning they haven’t contracted it out to private companies) which seems relatively rare in our experience so far. This means they are more able to make decisions unilaterally to change school meals rather than negotiate with a contractor or change terms in a contract. Out of the 40 councils where this campaign is being run, only three to my knowledge do in-house catering and I estimate that the proportion is similar in the 400 councils UK-wide (close to 5-10%). Another big factor in time needed for the campaign is having sympathetic councillors on-board early on. Relative to other councils, we didn’t have any particularly proactive councillors who supported us, which would have made this process even easier.

We started off in late November 2020 with my colleague Ben compiling a list of all 60 councillors in Hackney and sending them all a template email highlighting the key reasons for this change; That it was better for the planet, better for children and could save the council money in catering costs. After a follow-up email, we received a total of 14 replies with most expressing support for the campaign. By January, we had three initial phone conversations with councillors who then recommended we speak to the relevant Cabinet Members who deal with this issue and that they would email the Cabinet Members with their support as well. We sent individualised emails to the two Cabinet Members who would decide this issue (Cabinet Member for Health & Young People) to ask for a meeting, which wound up taking place in March. 

In this meeting, myself and my colleague Ben presented a deck of slides about all the ways this campaign was good for them: the same environment, children’s health and cost arguments as before. The Health Cabinet Member was extremely supportive and said he would be happy with two days per week of vegetarian meals however thought that it would be challenging politically. After a bit of discussion about the various merits and challenges, they committed to one day per week of vegetarian food across all maintained primary schools (60 schools) and that they would also try to push this in maintained secondary schools and academies (another 70 altogether). This was actually more than we were asking for in some regards as we didn’t expect they would be interested to push it across secondary schools and academies. 

 

How much impact is this going to have?

Counterfactual: I don’t think Hackney would have implemented this change for the next two years at least and I believe closer to 4-5 due to the lack of initiative usually shown by councils. ProVeg might have eventually gotten to Hackney however they’re a small team of three people to tackle all 404 UK councils so I’m not convinced they would have seen this fairly drawn-out process through anytime soon.  It’s quite likely this change would have never been implemented at all (or for much more than 6 years) however due to the large uncertainty I have in this, it seems more reasonable to stick with a lower value of 4 years. Multiplying our animals saved per year x 4 years = 120,000 animals saved over 4 years assuming the school population remains constant (although it usually increases).

 

What we learnt during the campaign

 

Assumptions in our calculations

Carbon abatement assumptions:

 

Uncertainties I have or improvements that could be made in my calculations

 

Conclusions

If anyone wants to run this campaign and lives in the UK, feel free to sign up to our campaign introduction talk on April 7th or April 29th, or private message me. It’s a fairly low effort campaign in my opinion that has potential for big wins. It’s important to note that I estimate only 5-10% of councils do in-house catering, which are the easiest targets, so the value of information of you sending a few emails just to discover that initial fact is quite high.

19 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T03:13:32.166Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you think there's much risk they'll serve much more eggs in response? That could be one way the intervention ends up being worse for animals than you'd have expected, and possibly even bad overall.

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-06T10:31:19.458Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good question. ProVeg works with councils on refining their menu and the implementation of a new menu after a commitment. To my knowledge they don't recommend eggs as replacements for the meat meals and they focus predominately on plant-based options as replacements. The only exceptions I've seen to this is two cases of dairy cheese included in a total of 40 recommended meals. I can follow up with them about this on Thursday however as it's definitely important.

In essence, the new meals are almost always plant-based but the schools legally have to serve a portion of milk or dairy every single day which is why they're labelled vegetarian days vs plant-based days.

comment by Ula · 2021-04-05T21:43:05.966Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi James, 

I can't spend too much time on this right now but at a first glance I can potentially see two major problems: 

1) Problem with collecting the data  that should show the effect

2) Problem with calculating the costs

With the 1) to count the animals spared by 1 plant-based day you would have to check stuff like:

  • what kind of meal was replaced (beef/ chicken/ fish, so e.g. beef will mean fewer animals spared, because people eat a smaller portion of the animal, fish will mean more animals spared);
  • was the supply chain affected (so e.g. maybe it only means that instead of 2 chicken wings there are 3 served on Thursday because Friday is plant-based day)
  • are the kids eating the plant-based meals in the long run, or they bring meat sandwiches from home for that day, because they don't like the plant-based alternative; or they eat extra meat at home in the evening to compensate for the lack of meat at school that day;

So these are just very few examples of many factors that should be accounted for in the calculations.

With the 2) to measure the cost you need not only focus on direct hours spent by a volunteer and PV employee but stuff like: 

  • who is managing volunteers and how much time they put into: recruiting the volunteer, train the volunteer, and manage the volunteer weekly; and how much time the volunteer put into direct work but also in travel, etc.
  • when you count the time of ProVeg: the cost would be not only how much a person earns per hour that works directly on the campaign but also multiple costs like the cost of producing a leaflet/ PDF/ printed materials, the cost of the time manager spend on managing the person and training the person that is working on this campaign etc. (so e.g. in case of a more corporate-structured organization like ProVeg it will be: time of a person working directly on the campaign, graphic designer time, web developer time, research person time, manager and manager of a manager time and their boss too, HR person time, accountant time, office costs, utilities costs like coffee, juice, tea, printing materials etc.); and you only factored earnings per hour so it seems?

So yeah this is just a quick remark and a top of an iceberg if you want to really measure the impact of this intervention. I hope this will give you a sense of how you can go about it, because there is only one study on this type of intervention and if I remember correctly it was either not effective at all or barely effective. Hopefully, someone will find a link, so you can check how they went about the calculations. 

Replies from: MichaelStJules, JamesOz
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T03:10:06.054Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  • are the kids eating the plant-based meals in the long run, or they bring meat sandwiches from home for that day, because they don't like the plant-based alternative; or they eat extra meat at home in the evening to compensate for the lack of meat at school that day;

(...)

I hope this will give you a sense of how you can go about it, because there is only one study on this type of intervention and if I remember correctly it was either not effective at all or barely effective. Hopefully, someone will find a link, so you can check how they went about the calculations. 

 

Here's some relevant research and writing I've come across, but they don't seem to estimate effects on meals at home:

  1. Forced Choice Restriction in Promoting Sustainable Food Consumption: Intended and Unintended Effects of the Mandatory Vegetarian Day in Helsinki Schools
    1. More skipped meals (when allowed, depending on the school level), plate waste and eating less on vegetarian days in the short term (and pretty significant effects, like 18%-40% for each), while in the medium term, only eating less on veg days and skipping meals but also students eating more vegetarian meals on other days. It seems reasonably likely these students would eat more meat at home on average to compensate, but I don't think this would cut the cost-effectiveness down by more than half.
  2. Nutritional quality and acceptability of a weekly vegetarian lunch in primary-school canteens in Ghent, Belgium: 'Thursday Veggie Day' | Public Health Nutrition | Cambridge Core
    1. Differences in plate waste were small enough to ignore.
  3. Meat Reduction by Force: The Case of “Meatless Monday” in the Norwegian Armed Forces
  4. Vox: A French city announced it would serve meatless school lunches. The backlash was swift.

I would assume they don't fully compensate on average and they would do so less in the long run, but I don't know how much they do (or whether some eat even fewer animal products at home), and this is something worth looking further into. There is research on rebound effects for voluntary (including nudging) meat reduction interventions (mostly seem small, from what I've seen), but we probably shouldn't generalize from it, given how differently people react to being forced to do something. 

The parents would also have a say on whether or not the students would eat more meat after school to compensate. They might encourage it or discourage it.

comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-06T07:46:50.715Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Ula,

Thanks for your comment!  You're right in that there's definitely much more complexity that I laid out in my post and model. Some things you've mentioned I've already accounted for so I'll answer those below:

 

  • What kind of meal was replaced: I definitely agree that the number animals spared depends hugely on the meal that was replaced on any given day. This is what I meant when I said in my "improvements that could be made section" with:

Better estimates for the average number of animals eaten per meal and per school meal.

Although it hindsight, it's not very clear exactly what I meant so I'll clarify that in the post a bit more. There's no obvious way for me to tell if most school serve cows, chickens or fish on any given day (as they might implement their vegetarian days on different days too) so I couldn't make a reasonable assumption that it would be any certain animal affected most. Due to that, I went with the average value of animal deaths averted using this post by ACE . Obviously fish and other marine animals make up the most of those deaths so if we found out that the fish day was the least likely to be affected, it would bring down the number of animal deaths averted. This might be something we update once it's implemented and we have a good idea of what meals were commonly swapped out.

 

  • Was the supply chain affected: This is similar to what Abraham was saying below too. To copy that reply: As we've been asking for this commitment on the basis on helping councils meet their climate targets and lower their catering costs, not actually purchasing less meat would be shooting themselves in the foot! Although I could definitely see some variation of this happening (e.g. purchasing 10% less vs 20% less). I'll mention it to ProVeg in our meeting this week and will see if they've had similar issues in the past or if they've considered this. My initial guess is that ProVeg have already considered this as they've been doing this work for two years so I hope they've gotten past this issue! Also, I do see this campaign as different to most Meatless Mondays campaigns as this is run on an environmental and cost angle where councils commit because it helps them immediately with lowering costs so they actually have a strong incentive to purchase less meat. I don't think this is the case with Meatless Mondays campaign that run on ethical stances.

 

  • Are the kids eating the plant-based meals in the long run: This is a good question. I believe ProVeg have been doing some impact assessment of their previous work to monitor the uptake of veggie and vegan meals so I'll try get ahold of that data. However, as this is rolling out primarily in maintained government schools, there is a certain percentage of children who get free-school meals due to being from low-income households. In those cases, which I believe is 30% of kids in Hackney, I strongly doubt parents would send any meat options to the school as it's unlikely they would want to turn down a free school meal. Also it seems like from MichaelStJules post below, there is some evidence that skipping meals could increase which would mean my final values are too high (for some cases). Broadly though I think we agree, if I wanted to make the model more rigorous, I would have included some variations of this point.

 

Regarding the cost calculations:

  • who is managing volunteers and how much time they put into: This was already accounted for in my model to produce the 170 hours figure for organising the campaign centrally. It's volunteers (like myself) organising more volunteers so I accounted for all the weekly meetings we had, workshops we delivered, resources we created, etc. To be specific, I accounted for 3 people spending a total 8-9 hours per week for 5 months, which did include all the various activities needed for the campaign. This figure is low because no one works full-time or part-time on this campaign. We only have one 1-hour weekly meeting and offer 1.5 hour workshops every other week so it really isn't very time intensive.
  • when you count the time of ProVeg: I think there's an important distinction to be made between ProVeg International and ProVeg UK here. ProVeg UK is a very small team of only 3 staff so most of the things you talked about I believe don't apply or are greatly simplified for such a small team. In addition, only one person works on the School Plates program full-time. You're right in that I could have included their manager's time but I think it would have been quite a bit more complex than what I wanted to do in terms of time I had for this. Instead, I over-estimated the time spent by ProVeg by about 25% to account for any other things I missed, like the items you outlined. Regarding the hourly pay - I converted a £40,000/year salary into an hourly rate using an online tool to make the calculation more convenient but it is based on someone getting an annual salary.

 

Overall, I definitely agree, there are more factors I could have included into this to make it extremely rigorous and watertight. Whilst I did account for some/most of the things you mentioned, it maybe wasn't explicit in my post so apologies for that. I think also I should have put my epistemic uncertainty as I don't think these values are 100%  accurate and I didn't do the research to justify that level of precision, but it's maybe more like 70-80%.

Replies from: Ula
comment by Ula · 2021-04-06T10:05:01.710Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey James, 
I don't know how it is now, but I worked at ProVeg Poland (so a country chapter like ProVeg UK) like 3 years ago and we worked on everything extremely slowly so i.e. a person that will be working on a campaign would have to ask the graphic people to design the graphics, then they would have to consult with the country manager, the manager would have a meeting with other country managers, these country managers were managed by a person from the leadership and the leadership would have their own meetings. On top of that, there was one international HR department that will do evaluations with employees, and there will be accountants that would deal with the salary, you would also spend time on being trained, conferences, team meetings, yearly reports, consulting PR department, country office, office costs etc. So like in each single thing you wanted to do in a country there was a huge team involved. I would definitely talk to them to get REAL numbers. I think this will impact your cost-effectiveness. 

comment by abrahamrowe · 2021-04-05T17:17:44.502Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is great! Thanks for the write up!

One other assumption that jumps out to me (represented in your model under "School meals affected per year (190 days)")

If I recall correctly, HSUS in the US originally sought Meatless Monday commitments, but found that many school districts, etc., that committed, didn't actually reduce their purchasing  that much (or at all) - they ended up just making their normal orders for meat, and added some veg stuff on top of that. This likely meant that these districts ended up serving more meat on non-Mondays. So, they changed their ask to a "20% overall reduction in meat purchases". This might mean the effectiveness is unfortunately a bit lower, if this is generally the case (though for HSUS it was for US school districts, so purchasing might work differently in the UK).

 

I wonder if there are a lot of low-hanging fruit for these campaigns around the world. I imagine there are a fair number of local animal advocacy groups who are really well positioned to do this advocacy, and my impression is that some of these might be really easy to get to change - e.g. a teacher in a district having a few conversations with the right people and bringing them some information.

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-05T18:36:56.464Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the feedback, that's much appreciated!

 

That's a great point and one that I actually hadn't thought of. As we've been asking for this commitment on the basis on helping councils meet their climate targets and lower their catering costs, not actually purchasing less meat would be shooting themselves in the foot! Although I could definitely see some variation of this happening (e.g. purchasing 10% less vs 20% less). I'll mention it to ProVeg in our meeting this week and will see if they've had similar issues in the past or if they've considered this. Thanks for flagging it!

 

Regarding your second point  - I definitely agree. I'm actually attending a workshop of teachers who want to see more plant-based meals in school this weekend so the goal is to inspire them to do something similar!  The only challenge is that it's extremely difficult to export something like this to a different country as laws and governance structures are so varied. People from Sweden and Portugal have said they're interested and want to try it but there really isn't many ways we can support them from the UK as we have no idea how those countries operate. But as your article shows, it really can be very straightforward if you happen to talk to someone who is already sympathetic. 

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T06:33:34.585Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised it took so few hours of work, about 40 hours according to your model. This is summing everyone's time spent, right? Impressive!

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-06T10:12:35.658Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah it really can be quite easy or low-effort if you seem to have a blend of the right circumstances: in-house catering, supportive councillors and luck! I fleshed out the volunteer hours put in centrally for Ula if you're curious as I didn't say how I got the 170 hour number so that might be of interest:

 

It's volunteers (like myself) organising more volunteers so I accounted for all the weekly meetings we had, workshops we delivered, resources we created, etc. To be specific, I accounted for 3 people spending a total 8-9 hours per week for 5 months, which did include all the various activities needed for the campaign. This figure is low because no one works full-time or part-time on this campaign. We only have one 1-hour weekly meeting and offer 1.5 hour workshops every other week so it really isn't very time intensive. Then I added some extra hours to for individual work to create the various documents, slideshows and other resources for the campaign.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T07:55:49.729Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's worth mentioning that Sociedade Vegetariana Brasileira is recommended by ACE, in large part for their Meatless Monday program.

(I'm an intern for ACE, but I'm not speaking for them.)

Replies from: Ula
comment by Ula · 2021-04-06T10:12:51.794Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Can't find a link to MM CEAs? 

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T15:23:56.340Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

See under the section Decreased Consumption of Animal Products here: https://animalcharityevaluators.org/charity-review/sociedade-vegetariana-brasileira-svb/#c3

They report number of veg meals and program costs, but don't estimate what this comes out to for animals or divide animals spared by costs to get a cost-effectiveness ratio.

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-06T16:10:11.018Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Wow, 81 million meals changed is really quite something! I would love to see a more comprehensive write-up of how they achieved that.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T06:42:43.711Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Looking at your model:

  1. It might be more accurate to break up meals by primary and secondary students and then sum them, since primary students probably eat a lot less than secondary students on average.
  2. You also divided the number of animals per person per day by 3, I assume for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Do people in the UK usually eat meat for breakfast? And do they eat more meat at dinner than lunch?

I don't think these would have huge effects on your final numbers, though.

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-06T10:21:07.718Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for highlighting these, these are both really good points. I really appreciate the thought provoking comments and questions you've left generally so thank you!

Regarding point 2: In hindsight, it would have probably been more accurate to weight each meal but their relative 'animal-content' e.g. 0.5 for dinner, 0.35 for lunch and 0.15 for breakfast. You're right in that most people won't be eating meat for breakfast (except on weekends I imagine) so that should be weighted down. If I used the weights above, it would probably be very similar to the 0.33 I've basically assumed in my original model so you're right in that it probably wouldn't change much.

 

Regarding number 1, again it would make some to have some kind of subjective weighting system based on the size of the meals. I did add a little epistemic uncertainty factor to the top of my post of about 70-80% as like you and Ula have pointed out rightly, there's definitely more factors that I could have included in my analysis but I didn't for simplicity/time. 

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T06:25:22.532Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Volunteers then are asking local councillors and relevant Cabinet members to instate two vegetarian days per week across all primary schools. Our rationale for this is that if we asked for one day per week, we believe councils would try to negotiate down to less.

What would this look like? A veg day every two weeks, or just serving fewer meat meals once a week? This seems kind of weird to me to negotiate down to, but I guess not implausible.

Maybe it's worth experimenting with asking for 1 day vs 2 days?

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-04-06T06:11:01.233Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This looking pretty promising! Thanks for sharing!

  • I think we brought this change happening forward by 2-6 years (the counterfactual of when it would have happened otherwise).

What was this based on? Is this assuming no other groups would run a similar campaign, or if they would have, since you ran this campaign, they'd do something else similarly impactful instead, e.g. meatless days at different institutions, or other institutional or corporate asks?

It seems like the schools most receptive and eager to run such programs would also be most likely to do it on their own without the push.

Also, it seems like you're modelling none of these schools as quitting these programs over that period. Some schools might have poor rollouts and then quit early (and making sure things go smoothly could be worth the extra work!), but I'd guess if a school makes it a few months without too many problems (e.g. lots of complaints, costs, logistical issues), it would be unlikely to quit before a full year passes, since they wouldn't go out of their way to revisit it again soon after the first evaluation at the end of a "trial period", but they might revisit school lunch programs regularly on a schedule, e.g. yearly, and then it might get cut when that happens. This is just speculation by me; I don't know how it works in schools, let alone schools in the UK.

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-04-06T10:41:50.256Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's predominately based on when I think ProVeg would have had capacity to work with Hackney and get this change moving. Like I've mentioned above, they only have one person working on the School Plates campaign and things generally take on the order of 12-18 months from initial contact to implementation. Most councils (90%+) don't reply to ProVeg's outreach emails so I can't imagine Hackney being particularly different over the next 1-2 years.

The much smaller probability is that either a very proactive councillor or very proactive citizen wanted to push this through but I think it would have been unlikely. It would be unlikely for the councillor to instigate such a thing in my opinion as councillors are generally extremely busy and not willing to go out on a limb on a politically risky move (as I think this is) without some external pressure. Also that most councillors aren't that motivated by animals or climate reasons. I don't think a citizen would have instigated this change as councils are actually quite complex to get your head around and most people don't even know how to go about this. Even with providing people with lots of information, people struggle to know the best people to contact and how to pitch an idea so I'm doubtful it would have happened organically this way for the next few years at least.

 

Regarding the drop-out rate, that's a good point. Although I'm fairly confident that individual schools themselves can't drop out, as all the catering/food is provided by the council so I think it's an all or nothing situation. Obviously the nothing situation would be extremely bad but I think a whole council quitting is quite unlikely (but not impossible).