Great vegan food is everywhere — except in America's public schools. Healthy-lunch advocates explain why.

A school lunch tray contains a doughnut, a mini pepperoni pizza, corn chips, pudding and low-fat chocolate milk.
Why are so many school lunches still unhealthy — and so lacking in plant-based options? (Getty Images)

Between the explosion of products like Oatly and Just Egg and Beyond Meat — even on menus at KFC, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's — you'd be forgiven for believing that plant-based eating is taking over nearly every kitchen in America.

But there's at least one major setting that's been slow to follow the trend, even though it's what one vegan advocate called "the biggest restaurant chain in any county": public school cafeterias, where healthy meal innovation faces a myriad of barriers, from food budgets and pandemic-related supply-chain problems to pressure from the meat and dairy industries.

"It's decades of lobbying," said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, where the Healthy Climate-Friendly Food Program works to counteract that by shifting K-12 (plus state, municipal and university) food service purchasing dollars to support healthier, "plant-forward" sustainable food.

But it's a challenge to get through the "serious regulatory barriers," she said.

"There's a ton of dairy influence in schools — they can't even [legally] promote water over milk," echoed Maggie Neola, a registered dietitian with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which educates the public about the benefits of plant-based diets. "Nothing can interfere with the sale of dairy milk." A Florida charter school with support to transition into having the first all-vegan public lunch program in the U.S., for example, saw milk requirements create a stumbling block.

A classroom table contains rows of containers of low-fat and chocolate dairy milk.
At public schools, "nothing can interfere with the sale of dairy milk," says one vegan-lunch advocate. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Still, in spite of the hurdles, these grassroots advocates, as well as parents to school food directors, are working every angle to try and make school lunch programs healthier for both students and the planet.

"I really am seeing more of a movement of schools being interested in vegan options, and students are requesting it — because of benefits to the environment, because it's cost-effective and because it's more of a trend," Neola said, noting that her organization is part of a coalition that meets with about 20 organizations nationally, all aiming to help schools add plant-based lunch items.

Fourteen percent of all school districts across the country provided vegan lunches for kids in at least one school; that's according to the nonprofit School Nutrition Association’s 2018 biannual report (the latest data available, due to 2020's pandemic disruption). That number was up from 11.5 percent in 2016, largely due to the many standout districts making a real effort in the vegan movement — including an Oakland, Calif., school pilot study by Friends of the Earth, in which offerings shifted to include more vegan options over two years, saving the district 42 million gallons of water, 14 percent off the carbon footprint of its entire food purchases and a total of $42,000.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District school board members unanimously voted in favor of bringing healthy, vegan options to schools in a pilot program championed by students, parents and doctors several years ago. Other schools offering vegan options are in municipalities including Fall River, Mass.; Boulder Valley, Colo.; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; Broward County, Fla.; Portland, Maine; and, most recently, in Richfield, Minn., where the mayor pledged to have a weekly vegan lunch option in addition to its daily salad bar.

There's also been news of plant-based Kickin' Nuggets being made available in cafeterias, already added to the school-lunch menus of six districts in California and Washington, affecting over 125,000 students. Made of textured wheat, chicken-less flavoring, cornstarch, oil and corn breading, the item is from startup Rebellyous Foods, which aims to develop "affordable plant-based products for the food-service sector and focusing on schools and hospitals to make the greatest impact," reported VegNews.

Similarly, plant-based startup Impossible Foods obtained a Child Nutrition (CN) label from the USDA, greenlighting its Impossible Burger to be served for lunch and breakfast at K-12 schools nationwide; it also recently launched its first vegan chicken product, Impossible Chicken Nuggets, and aims to get them on school menus to give kids yet another animal-free choice.

Despite the steady stream of advances, it's still a slow-moving effort.

A Friends of the Earth report from earlier this year focusing on California's school lunches, for example, found that that the offerings in the state's 25 largest K-12 districts fell short. Specifically, the analysis discovered that "cheeseburgers, meat pizzas, chicken nuggets and hot dogs are among the most widely served items on the menu," and that "only 4 percent of menu entrees were plant-based and 16 percent contained processed meat, which is considered carcinogenic by the World Health Organization."

"It's very concerning,” said Hamerschlag. "My guess is that because California generally has some of the healthier school meals, it's probably better than the rest of the country," she said. "So, it doesn't bode well."

Why vegan school lunches?

The shift to more vegan options is beneficial for the planet, for the health of students and for the finances of the school system, Friends of the Earth said.

Environmentally speaking, meat and dairy production come with a high cost, according to various studies: Livestock alone accounts for 14.5 percent of all global emissions — which is higher than the global exhaust from all vehicles (planes, trains, trucks, autos) combined. It also uses way more resources than plant-based foods do in production, with beef having 15 to 100 times the carbon footprint of beans and lentils, using an average of 1,800 gallons of water and six to 10 pounds of feeding grain to produce just a single pound of meat.

The Thai Lentil Burger, shown here, has been a big hit at many schools.
The Thai Lentil Burger has been a big hit in schools from California to Maine. (Courtesy of Friends of the Earth)

As for health, red and processed meats are associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and some cancers — reasons the many public health organizations emphasizing the need for more plant-based foods instead include the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, which recently updated dietary guidelines to suggest people get their protein "mostly from plants (legumes and nuts)" and avoid processed foods.

"There are 30 million kids served every day," said Emma Finn in a 2020 video presentation, "The Case for Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food and How to Improve School Food in Your Community," by Friends of the Earth, adding that factory-farmed meat and dairy are served daily at public schools, despite the fact that "many kids depend on school lunch as their primary source of nutrition." Finn says that is "unhealthy and unsustainable" and stressed that schools "do have a stake in shifting the food system."

So, what's standing in the way?

A USDA spokesperson tells Yahoo Life: "The Food and Nutrition Service is supportive of schools incorporating plant proteins into their menus for Child Nutrition Programs, including school meals, as part of a diverse diet. Plant proteins that meet the criteria specified in regulations can be used in meeting the meat/meat alternate meal requirements of reimbursable school lunch and breakfast meals," and that includes tofu and beans.

And as far as some schools continuing to serve processed meats, the spokesperson added, "The weekly dietary specifications for calories, sodium and saturated fat for school meals guide menu planners to use discretion when considering processed meat for their menu planning needs."

But Hamerschlag pointed to various policies that make it "easy and cheap to serve factory-farmed meat, and costly and hard to serve plant-based."

Much of the meat and dairy for schools, she explained, is procured through a subsidized USDA foods program, through which $1.5 billion allots budgets for schools each year. The schools then purchase lunch items with that entitlement funding — roughly three-quarters of which is spent on ground beef for burgers, cheese for pizza and chicken, Hamerschlag said.

Plant-based proteins such as lentils and tofu "can't even begin to compete against these animal products [which] are freely provided," she said. Beans are provided, but they are not ordered nearly as much as meats and cheeses, for a variety of reasons. "You can make a chickpea dish from scratch, but it requires culinary skills and equipment that many schools don’t have," she said. And now adding to those challenges are supply-chain issues for beans — fallout from pandemic panic-buying that’s been spurred on by droughts.

Similarly, if a district wanted to replace beef burgers with veggie burgers, it would cost more, "even though it's made from ingredients that are fed to cows," said Hamerschlag.

Further problematic, she explained, are some seemingly "arbitrary" rules, including that grains high in protein, like quinoa, cannot be counted toward the meat/meat alternate.

And in order to serve plant-based proteins that do qualify, complex requirements dictate schools service twice of what's required of meats — twice the amount of tofu, nut butter or fake-chicken nuggets, for example. "It's too much for the kids," she says, "and only creates unappealing plant-based foods."

Finally, those half-pints of milk: "fluid" milk must be offered as a federally required component of school lunch — and only the kind that's from cows, not plants.

"Milk contains 13 essential nutrients and is the number-one source of calcium and vitamin D in the diets of America's children and adolescents, making it an integral part of the federal school meals program," Katie Bambacht, vice president of school nutrition, National Dairy Council, told Yahoo Life in a statement.

"Most age groups fall short in meeting daily milk and dairy recommendations as outlined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans," she said, "so school meals help close the gap and bring students closer to nutrient recommendations for calcium, vitamin D and other critical nutrients important for growth and development." (Some studies dispute the Dairy Council's claims, showing that nutritional profiles of many food sources are either equivalent to or higher than those of dairy.)

And on top of dairy's influence are now "significant supply chain disruptions" — and not only for garbanzo beans, according to School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner, who told Yahoo Life that that "SNA's Back to School 2021 Survey of school meal program directors nationwide found 97 percent of respondents were concerned about continued pandemic supply chain disruptions, with 65 percent citing 'serious' concern. Schools are still serving students healthy meals every day, but cafeterias are facing delayed deliveries, canceled orders, shortages of certain items, longer than normal lead/order times and significantly higher costs."

How parents and students can create change

Neola said that more plant-based options largely come about locally, because of the requests and efforts of motivated individuals — something the USDA spokesperson nodded to as well, telling Yahoo Life, "It is important to reiterate that individual foods available to students in school are planned by the local school districts and are based on local preferences, financial considerations, available staff and physical facilities."

Neola said that the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine can help support parent requests as well as offer culinary training and meet with school boards or principals to help "make it a real community effort.”

Besides reaching out for support, she advised parents to talk to kids to find out who would be interested in one new item — a tofu curry or black bean burger, for example — showing that it's more than one child who wants a change. "Even if it's just 10 kids saying, 'I would love to see plant-based options,'" she said.

Taking any group requests to the school food director, added Hamerschlag, can be an effective approach — as long as you don't "do it in a way that's accusatory," and keep in mind that "they are living and working in a system that works against the interests of healthy kids."

Legislation is also an important tack, and speaking up in support of bills that urge more plant-based options is important, she says. California's Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Lunch Act (AB 479), for example, was introduced in 2019 to incentivize schools financially to add vegan options (but died after making it out of committee).

In New York City, meanwhile, a Meatless Monday initiative is in effect, and in 2019, the city council there adopted a resolution — similar to one passed by California’s Santa Barbara Unified School District — calling upon the Department of Education to remove processed meat from public school menus citywide. In June, a federal bill was proposed in Congress, which would provide a voluntary grant program to support plant-based lunch options.

But sometimes all it takes is one delicious, well-sold menu item, Hamerschlag said, as was proved by the case in California's San Luis Coastal Unified School District, where a well-marketed option that started as an experimental item in a Maine district — the Thai Lentil Burger — became a surprise runaway hit with students, not to mention that it wound up being cheaper (and healthier) than beef burgers for the various districts now serving them.

While it took some trial-and-error to get the taste and consistency right for kids, as San Luis Coastal Unified School District food services director Erin Primer told Friends of the Earth, "Without taking risks, evolution can't happen."

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