What’s fed to children in school meals is important not just for their health and development but for climate, biodiversity and equity. Every year millions of children in the United States participate in child-nutrition programs; for many of them, school meals are an essential source of nourishment.
Chicken nuggets, hamburgers and hot dogs remain staples in school lunch menus. At many schools, dairy milk is the only beverage option on menus that are also heavily packed with cheese (even though many people, especially Black, Indigenous and Asian people, are lactose intolerant). At 7 billion school meals served annually, this reliance on meat and dairy comes with a substantial cost to the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution and habitat loss.
Every child has a right to healthy, sustainable, culturally appropriate meals at school. This means schools need to provide plant-based meal options that can meet students’ medical, religious and ethical needs, and are also better for the planet than the average school meal. Unfortunately very few plant-based entrees are available in our public schools because of the policy and financial barriers schools face.
Many of the 30 million school meals served every day across the United States go to students who rely on them as a primary source of nutrition. Providing better meals is a crucial point of intervention to mitigate racial health disparities, which emerge early in life. Healthy, plant-forward diets can also boost academic performance and address educational inequities, while reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and protecting against certain forms of cancer and other diseases. Students across the country are asking for plant-based options, which tend to have a lower carbon footprint.
Food-service directors often face many challenges to offering healthy choices that reduce impacts on the environment. To begin to build a better school food structure, we need to remove some of the barriers to structural change. For some schools this may mean incorporating educational opportunities into school curricula that are specific to eating habits — say, nutrition, gardening, and cooking — and working to increase student choice and acceptance of plant-based options through activities like taste tests. But that will also mean greater support for kitchen staff, equipment, and training in the preparation and benefits of plant-based meals.
When it comes to policy solutions, a few first steps are key. To address the fact that many if not most people have some lactose intolerance, we should:
With a broad-based coalition, the Center for Biological Diversity is working to support The Healthy Future Students and Earth Act, introduced by Reps. Velázquez and Jamaal Bowman, both Democrats of New York. This legislation would help school districts meet the increasing demand for plant-based school meals, support a more just, sustainable food system, and significantly lessen the impact of this sector.
This bill is endorsed by more than 100 environmental and social justice organizations. HR 4108 is a first-of-its-kind effort that will provide much-needed financial support, culinary training, and other assistance to school districts to meet the growing demand for plant-based options.
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