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

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.


  • Animal Rebellion UK has been running a volunteer campaign to get local councils in the UK to introduce 1-2 vegetarian days per week in local schools.

  • We had our first commitment in Hackney Council who have committed to 1 vegetarian day per week starting September, across 30,000+ students and 100+ schools.

  • We calculated this to affect 990,000 school meals per year and therefore spare the lives of 31,000 animals per year (see calculations in Guesstimate)

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

  • The total amount of time estimated spent on the Hackney campaign alone was 41 hours, giving a value of 9,400 animal deaths averted per hour of time spent.

  • Given a rough value of volunteer time (£10-£15/​hour, unsure about this), I calculated that we averted 190 animal deaths per £ spent over the course of 4 years.

  • This also results in a reduction of 1800 tonnes of CO2e over 4 years, equating to 2.7 tonnes of CO2e abatement per £ spent.

  • Whilst this intervention isn’t very scalable (there are only 404 councils in the UK with maybe 20 to 40 that are “low-hanging fruit”), it would be interesting to explore if there are similar opportunities out there. We currently have another 2-3 councils in the pipeline of making similar commitments to Hackney.

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:

  • There is precedent: Leeds City Council took this step to introduce one vegetarian day per week across 184 primary schools with the help of ProVeg UK, who we are also working with.

  • Similarly, Enfield and Lewisham council decided to no longer serve meat at council events for climate emergency reasons. While council events aren’t a major source of meat consumption, we still see this the beginning of a trend of local councils taking action to meet council carbon reduction targets.

  • 74% of district, county, unitary and metropolitan councils have declared a climate emergency across the UK, signalling that there is a huge number of councils who are keen to take climate action.

  • School food is generally regarded as poor quality and unhealthy so many people and councillors agree it needs to be improved.

  • Young age is a time where habits are formed and therefore if children learn early-on that plant-based food is healthy, tasty and good for the planet, this can inform their eating habits through the rest of their life. Basically, it’s a high-leverage time to intervene.

  • There are over 585 million school meals in the UK so there is an opportunity to have a large impact in terms of meals changed by convincing relatively few key decision makers in councils.

  • Councils generally copy one another and want to be forward-thinking/​progressive. This means that if we gain a few commitments, there is a good chance other councils may follow suit without any pressure in a domino-effect fashion.

  • Trusted institutions (councils and schools) normalising plant-based eating can help shift public perception on the fact that we need to move away from animal farming.

  • We thought this campaign was one that people could do distributed across the country and online without the need for gathering or increasing risk of COVID infections. Our normal theory of change would be doing mass civil disobedience however with COVID & lockdown, this was rendered pretty impossible so we had to adapt. I’m working on a longer post about the role of social movements and mass protest in social change so stay tuned for that!

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?

  • We calculated this to affect 990,000 million school meals per year and therefore spare the lives of 31,000 animals per year (see calculations in Guesstimate)

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

  • The total amount of time estimated spent on the Hackney campaign alone was 41 hours, giving a value of 9,400 animal deaths averted per hour of time spent.

  • The time spent is broken down in the Guesstimate model but in brief: (1/​40)* 170 hours spent on developing the campaign centrally (creating resources, hosting talks, etc.) + 15 hours liaising with councillors in Hackney + 22 hours of ProVeg work to help a single councils transition.

  • Given a rough value of volunteer time (£10-£15/​hour, unsure about this), I calculated that we averted 190 animal deaths per £ spent over the course of 4 years.

  • This also results in a reduction of 1800 tonnes of CO2e over 4 years, equating to 2.7 tonnes of CO2e abatement per £ spent.

  • We’re also in late-stage talks with 2-3 other councils who are planning on making similar commitments so hopefully we can get a few more onboard within the next few months.

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

  • Our initial estimate of the proportion of councils that do in-house catering, the easiest one to change, was around 20%. Based on the work we’ve done now, we think that number is closer to 5-10%. This obviously means there’s much less scope for wins but still a significant number (20 councils at least). We couldn’t have foreseen this as the information is not publicly available so we had to go off previous conversations with ProVeg but I think it was still valuable to uncover this information regardless. The reason why it can be hard to change out-sourced catering contracts is that they are often on the scale of 3-5 years, where changes in the middle of a contract are extremely rare and usually only done in special cases. It is much more likely to change an out-sourced contract near the end of the contract term, where renegotiations or tendering are already happening. Due to this, we expect the average time taken per council to be greater than the time spent in Hackney, with some proving almost impossible in the worst cases.

  • Councillors know very little about school food, catering and contracts. The stock reply we’ve been getting from councils that out-source catering via contracts to private companies is that they can’t help or change school meals. This is quite frustrating as having spoken with a contracts officer who does council procurement, there is scope to renegotiate the terms of a contract in certain cases (as above). This can be slightly hard to communicate and I think volunteers don’t feel confident challenging councillors which means it can lead to a dead end. This is something we’re working on improving in the next stages of the campaign, through more talks and workshops to empower volunteers to present the facts to councillors.

  • It’s much easier to get people excited about sending emails and liaising with councillors than organising civil disobedience, sadly for our case. Also, email writing tends to draw a much different demographic (40yo+) vs the normal work we do (20-35yo). This has been good in some regards as we’re now expanding the pool of people we work with and that volunteer for us.

Assumptions in our calculations

  • We used the elasticity of meat values given by ACE in this post and did not conduct our own research. They are US-based figures so it would differ slightly for the UK.

  • That Hackney council will honour their commitment (I’m 95% certain of this as they confirmed it in writing and are meeting with ProVeg UK to implement it).

  • That 10-20% of meals eaten on any school day are already vegetarian (based on talks with ProVeg).

  • The number of animals per meal in the UK is the total animals eaten per person /​ meals per year. I looked for a value for this figure however I couldn’t find it and went with this Fermi estimate.

  • The average number of animals eaten per school meal is 0.5-1x the amount of animals eaten per meal in the UK. This is based on conversations with ProVeg and a personal assumption that school meals, especially in primary schools, are less animal-product heavy compared to normal meals.

Carbon abatement assumptions:

  • The values used for the climate impact of school meals are from this study.

  • The study draws on the researchers previous work which uses GWP100 values for methane to CO2 equivalent conversions vs the GTP100 metric which I believe Founders Pledge prioritises. This might lead to an overestimation of the CO2e if you’re looking purely at global temperature change in 100 years time.

  • I assumed that the make-up of a vegetarian school meal was approx. 60% vegan items and 40% vegetarian items, as can be seen in this spreadsheet. This figures were all relatively arbitrary and could be improved significantly I imagine.

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

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

  • Better idea of which meals are swapped out: 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.

  • Better estimates for the demand elasticity of meat: it would be good to get UK-based figures as well as demand elasticity values based on when suppliers/​institutions change their demand. I assume the ACE values above are for consumer demand elasticities whereas in this case, it’ll be a large institutional order that is changing so I assume the demand elasticity would actually be higher.

  • Better estimate for the value/​counterfactual value of volunteer time: Whilst the number I used for the value of volunteer time are quite rough, to get accurate values for these it would probably be more effort than it’s worth for this level of analysis.

  • Unsure on the time that ProVeg usually spends per council, however I’m talking to them this week so will clarify.

  • I’m unsure how much of an influence that Hackney Council has on secondary school and academy catering but this is extremely challenging to discern until it happens.


  • This is clearly a very cost & time-effective intervention for animals so I think ACE should rate us at one of their top charities and Open Phil should fund us to the tune of millions of dollars.

  • Just kidding—I rarely see posts about volunteer organisations and/​or campaigning groups so thought it would be interesting to write one up. I would love to see more posts by campaigners: what they’ve done, what they achieved and what they learnt. I’m thinking about groups like THL, Mercy for Animals, Anima International; but I’m sure there’s plenty more.

  • I’m also interested in whether there are other small projects like this that could be quite impactful in terms of cost effectiveness however aren’t big enough to warrant a new organisation or aren’t very scalable. I’m thinking almost a mini-Charity Entrepreneurship where various projects are researched and if a good intervention is found, an army of volunteers are set loose who will work on that issue. It could be a possibility for the “Task Y” problem, as projects such as this one could always do with more volunteer resources.

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.