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School Lunch Policies and How to Veganize Them

February 17, 2021

For most students, it is not uncommon to walk into the cafeteria and see a plethora of meal options including meats, milks, and cheeses.

Pepperoni pizzas, cheeseburgers, and chicken sandwiches are all typical meals served at K-12 schools throughout the United States. All of which, unfortunately, do not cater towards vegan students.

As a vegan high schooler, the past three years have been frustrating as I constantly felt left out during snack and lunch times. Unlike students who had a variety of options accessible to them, I found little to no plant-based options available on a daily basis, which left me with no option but to pack food from home. For most students, it is not uncommon to walk into the cafeteria and see a plethora of meal options including meats, milks, and cheeses. Rather than having a variety of choices to tend to the dietary needs of all students, schools tend to focus on animal-based meals. Why, you may wonder? Governmental regulations largely answer this question.

In order for schools to get funding for the Free and Reduced Lunch Programs, which provide low-income students with free or lower-cost snacks and lunches, schools must follow the meal guidelines set by the USDA. According to the USDA’s MyPlate, a balanced lifestyle should contain “between 2 and 6½ ounces” of protein each day, alongside three cups of dairy per day. These legal requirements lead many school districts to focus on including large amounts of meat and dairy into their cafeteria menus, which results in food menus that are both unethical and environmentally unsustainable, while also being exclusive towards vegan students. Animal agriculture is heavily subsidized in the United States and many of those subsidies are filled through contracts with school food suppliers. Dean Food, for instance, is one of the largest milk producers in the US and ships 1.8 billion half-pints of TruMoo and DairyPure to schools a year.

Thankfully, not all is doom and gloom.

Normalizing vegan snacks and lunches can help to create a food system that is ethical, nutritious, and inclusive for all students.

There are new plant-based food options arising with companies such as Sodexo, one of the U.S.’ largest school food suppliers. Sodexo introduced 300 plant-based recipes into its plans in order to create menu items that are not only more nutritious, but also more environmentally sustainable. These recipes were created with the help of the Humane Society of the United States in order to meet the increasing consumer demand for vegan and vegetarian recipes. To further increase plant-based offerings, studies from Stanford University found that a step as small as adjusting the name of a plant-based menu item to something that sounds more appealing increased plant-based orders “by up to 41 percent.” To bring in more plant-based orders, Sodexo used this naming technique for meals such as “Chesapeake Cakes,” “Smoky Black Bean Tamales,” and “Kung Pao Cauliflower.”

With more plant-based offerings from food suppliers, more schools can expand their vegan meal options on a large-scale. Normalizing vegan snacks and lunches can help to create a food system that is ethical, nutritious, and inclusive for all students.

Moreover, there are ways that ordinary people just like me and you can bring in more plant-based options to our schools. If you and others nearby feel that there are a lack of vegan options at your school district, email your district’s nutritional service director and request a meeting! Beforehand, try to create a petition and/or survey calling for more plant-based snack and lunch options in order to demonstrate a need for change. By gathering survey data, you can have a clear understanding on what meals students in your school district are interested in, and you will be able to use the survey data to illustrate a demand for more plant-based options to your school or school district.

For reference and inspiration, be sure to check out this plant-based survey and dashboard I created that helped add more vegan options to my school.

Arpi Keshishian is an FFAC fellow and senior student at Clark Magnet High School. Arpi is strongly dedicated to sustainability and veganism and plans to pursue a degree in Environmental Policy.

Sharing this article helps raise awareness about the impact of factory farming on humans, animals, and the environment.

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