Plant-Based School Lunches Are in Demand — but Big Dairy Is Still Prioritized Above Student Health

Students of color are likely to be lactose intolerant — yet dairy-free options in schools are still the exception to the rule.

School lunch of sandwich, apple and milk

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In the U.S., plant-based diets have skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade, and plant-based meals are now more accessible than ever. Public school lunches, however, have been slow to adapt. Despite reams of data showing that plant-based food is beneficial for both the environment and human body (especially for people of color, who are more likely to be lactose intolerant), most school districts still rely on meat and dairy products to feed their students. This is slowly beginning to change — but why has change come so slowly, and what can be done to speed it up?

How Does the School Lunch Program Work?

The National School Lunch Program was created in 1946 as part of the National School Lunch Act. In essence, the program gives schools money and rebates with which to purchase food for student lunches; in exchange, the schools have to offer lunches for free or at a reduced price to lower-income students, and the lunches themselves must meet minimum federal nutritional standards, as outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture.

These standards limit the amount of sodium, saturated fat and calories that school lunches can contain, and require them to include certain amounts of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein. But they place no limits whatsoever on highly-processed foods, which is why in some states, Lunchables are served in public schools.

Are Public School Lunches Required to Have Dairy and Meat in Each Meal?

Yes and no. Federal standards state that public school lunches are required to include a certain amount of protein, but they don’t specify where that protein should come from. A school could have a completely meat-free menu and still be in compliance with federal rules, and in fact, several public schools in New York have done exactly this.

Dairy, however, is another matter, because the text of the National School Lunch Act stipulates that schools have to include milk in their lunches, and by default, this has to be dairy milk. The law only allows for exceptions if a student brings a signed doctor’s note or, in some cases, a note from a guardian asserting that they have a disability preventing them from drinking dairy milk.

This is a problem for lactose-intolerant students, as lactose-intolerance is not considered a disability. It’s also a problem for children of color, who are more likely to be lactose intolerant than their white peers. Yet numerous efforts to pass more inclusive school milk policies have failed to gain traction in Congress.

How Often Do School Lunches Include Plant-Based Meals?

Although nationwide data is difficult to come by, only 14 percent of U.S. school districts have at least one school in them that offers vegan options as part of its school lunches. But California in particular has led the charge in introducing plant-based foods to school lunches.

Plant-Based Meals in California Schools

In 2022, the advocacy group Friends of the Earth conducted a sweeping review of the 25 largest school districts in California, which collectively serve 1.83 million students, to see how their lunch menus had changed over the previous three years. The analysis found several promising trends, and a few less promising ones, surrounding plant-based foods in school lunches.

During the three years surveyed, the percentage of schools offering plant-based meals on a daily or weekly basis jumped from 44 percent to 68 percent. The share of dishes on school lunch menus that were plant-based increased by 16 percent during that time, and the number of middle and high schools that offered no plant-based food at all fell by 42 percent.

There was also a marked increase in both the variety and the quality of plant-based dishes in school lunches. The total number of plant-based dishes on school menus rose from 61 to 80, and the number of schools that offered nut or seed butter sandwiches as their only plant-based foods fell by a third.

Also encouraging is the fact that many California schools are now offering plant-based foods that reflect the state’s cultural and racial diversity. Sixty-five percent of California’s population is non-white and 27 percent are immigrants, and the state’s school lunches are beginning to offer world cuisine that reflects this diversity, offering dishes such as teriyaki tofu, vegan tostadas, chana masala and tofu katsu bowls.

“Many diets all around the world are plant-based,”  Friends of the Earth’s Nora Stewart, who co-authored the report, tells Sentient. “By adding more plant-based offerings, it can really be accommodating to the cultural diversity of the student population.”

Why California Schools Are Offering More Plant-Based Meals

So, who or what is responsible for California’s shift toward plant-based foods? As it turns out, it’s a combination of top-down changes implemented by policymakers and bottom-up pressure from California’s students.

Legislative Advances in Plant-Based Meal Offerings

Between 2019 and 2022, California lawmakers passed several pieces of legislation to facilitate the adoption of plant-based foods in schools. Beginning in 2020, the state has provided annual funding for farm-to-school programs each year other than 2023, which incentivize schools to offer more nutritious and locally-grown food to their students. The next year, the state passed the Universal Meals Program, which requires, and provides funding for, all public schools to offer two nutritious meals per day for free to any student who requests them. On top of all of this, California allocated $600 million for upgrading school kitchen infrastructure and training kitchen staff.

Perhaps most significantly, California passed something called the School Foods Best Practices Fund in 2022, which has the potential to significantly shape what school lunches in the state look like going forward. The law outlines four general principles for school lunches to follow. Those principles are:

  • Procuring California-grown or produced, sustainably grown, whole or minimally processed foods,
  • Using California-grown, whole or minimally processed foods in plant-based or restricted diet meals for pupils,
  • Procuring plant-based or restricted diet meals, or
  • Freshly preparing meals on site.

Between 2023 and 2025, the state will distribute $100 million in additional state funds to schools that can prove they’ve met at least one of the above principles. With this initiative, California became the first state to use public funds to incentivize plant-based foods in schools.

“We’re just so excited by the funds that are coming through, and we think that that’s a part of the progress that’s really being made,” Stewart says. “So we want to continue that — not just within California, but also to see other states implementing similar processes, similar budgets, similar appropriations for better school food and kitchen infrastructure.”

Student-Driven Demand for Plant-Based Lunch Offerings

The second part of the equation is student demand. A 2022 survey found that almost one in five Generation Zers are on a plant-based diet, making it the third-most-popular diet among the generation. Stewart says that students have been increasingly requesting plant-based alternatives in California schools, and school administrators are acting on these requests.

“We’re seeing more and more students really care about climate and climate change, and the importance of what’s on their plates and what’s on their school menus,” Stewart says. “A lot of students are really wanting more plant based offerings, and I think school nutrition service directors are really hearing that demand.”

Why Don’t More Schools Serve Plant-Based Foods?

These are all welcome developments, but Friends of the Earth’s study also makes it clear that even in California, schools still have a long way to go. Despite the trendlines moving in the right direction, meat and dairy continue to dominate school lunches.

In 2022, only eight percent of dishes on California school menus were plant-based, according to Friends of the Earth’s research, compared with 48 percent that were meat-based, and 33 percent that were dairy-based. And although meat-based dishes comprised a slightly smaller share of school lunches in 2022 than three years earlier, the prevalence of highly processed meat dishes on school menus increased during that same time.

According to Stewart, one of the biggest obstacles impeding efforts to introduce more plant-based foods into school lunches is a little-known document called the USDA Foods List.

What Is the USDA Food List?

Every year, the USDA releases a list of foods that schools can purchase directly from the agency at a discounted price. Although schools can and do buy ingredients on the open market as well, the discounted prices give schools a heavy incentive to purchase their lunch items directly from the Foods List. This, in turn, gives the list an outsized role in shaping the composition of student lunches.

Unfortunately, plant-based foods are not very well represented on that list. According to Friends of the Earth’s report, the only plant proteins on the USDA Foods List are beans and nut and seed butter.

How the USDA Foods List Props up Big Dairy

The list is produced as part of the USDA Foods Program. One of the purposes of that program is to provide nutritious lunches to school children, but another is to stabilize the agriculture industry, which it does by purchasing unsold inventory from agricultural producers. This excess food ends up on the USDA Foods List, where it’s purchased by schools.

”This program was started, in part, when we had more volatile commodity prices,”  Chloë Waterman, a senior program manager for Friends of the Earth, tells Sentient. “What [the] USDA would do is purchase foods that were produced in surplus, and essentially dump them on school as a way of stabilizing what was, at the time, an unstable farming economy. And the program has not actually changed all that much since then.”

As a result, a lot of what ends up in school lunches is determined not by students, administrators or policymakers, but rather, by the current state of the agricultural economy. 

Incidentally, milk is required to be served in school lunches for a similar reason. Milton Mills, M.D., a critical care physician and medical director for Switch4Good, told Sentient in 2022 that milk was included in the National School Lunches Act not out of concern for children’s nutrition, but because when the law was written, “the bottom was about to drop out of the dairy industry.”

To be sure, there are other ways that foods can end up on the USDA Foods List. School districts can petition the USDA to have foods added, and so can food companies. But the process is a lengthy and bureaucratic one. Waterman says that Friends of the Earth, in conjunction with Morningstar, has been trying to get a veggie burger on USDA Foods List for four years without success. 

In response, a spokesperson for the USDA told Sentient that the agency “has always been committed to offering a variety of nutritious, domestically-produced food options,” and is “supportive of schools incorporating animal and plant proteins into their menus for school meals, as part of a diverse diet.”

Nevertheless, Waterman says that the USDA was not established with the long-term wellbeing of the environment in mind. 

“Part of protecting the health and wellbeing of our kids right now is protecting the well being of the planet that they’re going to inherit,” Waterman says. “And that’s really not something that the folks who set up the USDA Foods Program would have contemplated.”

The Path Forward for More Plant-Based Options in Schools

The USDA Foods List notwithstanding, California schools have shown that progress is possible. On the policy side, simply funding plant-forward initiatives, like the farm-to-school program and School Foods Best Practices, is a huge part of the equation; Waterman says that many schools would like to offer more plant-based foods to students, but don’t have the resources.

There’s room for federal action as well. A piece of legislation called the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act would create a grant program to fund more plant-based foods in school lunches and, just as importantly, more education and activities related to plant-based agriculture. It would also amend the National School Lunches Act to remove the requirement that schools serve milk. Though it hasn’t passed yet, it has partially progressed through the House in previous sessions, and Waterman is hopeful that it will be taken up again in the future.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who can affect change in this arena. As mentioned earlier, student demand plays an enormous role as well.

Schools that would like to introduce more plant-based foods into their menus, meanwhile, can utilize Friends of the Earth’s Climate Friendly School Food program, which provides schools with training, procurement, marketing and other general assistance to make the transition into plant-based foods easier and less expensive.

The Bottom Line

The slow but steady adoption of plant-based foods in public schools is a microcosm of a larger shift taking place in the United States. Mountains of industry data shows that Americans are increasingly embracing plant-based foods, despite the well-publicized stumbles of the industry’s biggest players.

Plant-based diets are healthy and less environmentally destructive than carnivorous diets, and they inflict infinitely less pain and suffering on animals. They’re also less expensive and, with the number of plant-based meat alternatives growing by the day, more accessible than ever.

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