Eloisa Trinidad’s parents moved her family from the Dominican Republic to New York City when she was 11. At the time, eating in her elementary school’s cafeteria was one of the most jarring experiences. Back at home, Trinidad’s family had largely grown what they ate — a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, and a little fish. Meals were locally sourced and devoid of many of the processed and unrecognizable ingredients that had become staples of the Western diet. So when Trinidad got her first look at American school lunch — mainly hamburgers, pepperoni pizza, and breaded chicken sandwiches — she was disgusted.
“Because I didn’t want to eat animals, there was nothing for me to eat,” recalls Trinidad. “My parents were cleaning houses to get by and depended on school food for my nutrition — but I didn’t eat it.”
Nearly two decades later, this experience drives Trinidad, now 40, to push for better food in New York City’s public school cafeterias. The nonprofit she directs, Chilis on Wheels New York, is part of a coalition of mostly vegan and Black, Indigenous, and Latinx-founded and led organizations that partner with the district’s Office of Food and Nutritional Services to expand plant-based offerings in the city’s schools. And by all accounts, their work is seeing success.
In February, the New York School System, which serves 1.1 million students in 1,800 school cafeterias, began serving hot, plant-based meals to all students on Fridays following an executive order by the city’s newly elected mayor, Eric Adams.
New York City Department of Education spokesperson Jenna Lyle says “Vegan Fridays” build on the success of Meatless Mondays, first introduced in 2019, and Meatless Fridays, introduced in April 2021. Besides the hot vegan meals on Fridays, cold plant-based options like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hummus and pretzels are available every day, Lyle says. And students are still able to select “lighter dairy products,” such as milk, cheese sandwiches, and bean burritos, she adds.
This may be part of why the program’s debut caused confusion among some parents and students, many of whom gave the new menu items mixed reviews on social media. Adams, who credits a plant-based diet with reversing his own Type 2 Diabetes in 2016, points to both the health and environmental benefits of integrating vegan meals into New York’s schools.
“Plant-based options in schools means healthy eating and healthy living and improving the quality of life for thousands of New York City students,” said Mayor Adams in a recent statement. “I’m thrilled to see that all students will now have access to healthy foods that will prevent debilitating health conditions.”
New York joins Miami, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia in expanding plant-based offerings for students. And for good reason — according to the Plant Based Food Association, 79 percent of respondents in Generation Z report eating a plant-based meal one to two times a week. Despite this rise in “flexitarianism,” however, just 14 percent of school districts nationwide offer plant-based meals in at least one school.
For some districts still digging themselves out of holes created by the pandemic and supply chain issues, adding more vegan meals isn’t a high priority. But advocates say that even districts that are motivated to change are hampered financially by outdated school nutrition guidelines that give deference to the meat and dairy lobbies.
A growing and diverse movement
Friends of the Earth (FOE) U.S., the California-based branch of the global environmental nonprofit, consults with school districts across the nation that want to serve more plant-based meals and advocates for state and federal policies that expand vegan options. In the five years since FOE first worked with the Oakland Unified School District on a pilot project to show that a plant-centered menu cuts both food costs and greenhouse gas emissions, the organization is engaging with more districts that want to improve the quality of their meals, according to Kari Hamerschlag, FOE’s deputy director of food and agriculture.
“As the student population is growing increasingly racially and culturally diverse, and also environmentally conscious, we are seeing the demand for plant-forward meals growing significantly,” said Hamerschlag. “Initially it was more like us knocking on the doors of school districts, and now it’s districts knocking on our door. They are hearing the demand, and they want to serve healthier foods to students.”
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New York’s Trinidad says students of color are often leading the vegan revolution in their school cafeterias. The school meal coalition of which Chilis on Wheels is a part centers the voices of students of color who seek culturally appropriate, plant-based options in school.
“The fastest-growing demographic of plant-based and vegan folks are African Americans,” Trinidad, who identifies as Afro-Indigenous, points out. “When you look at these diverse cultures all around the world and you think about the best plant-based food, it tends to come from backgrounds other than white, European backgrounds.”
The trend is mainly happening on the coasts, but some less likely districts have also worked to integrate plant-based options into school menus. Chicago Public Schools implemented “Plant-Forward Thursdays,” and Independent School District in Austin, Texas offers plant-based options available daily. Several other districts in the middle of the country, including the Richfield Public Schools in Minnesota, have signed the Forward Food Pledge to commit to transitioning at least 10 percent of their meat-based entrees to plant-based entrees annually by the end of 2024.
The challenges of the last two years have made serving kids healthy food of any kind difficult, and efforts to change menus have often been put on the back burner. School building closures stemming from the pandemic stopped all meal service — vegan and otherwise — in 2020 and early 2021, and supply chain disruptions over the past year have impacted schools’ ability to offer a wide range of options in their cafeterias, says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations with the School Nutrition Association (SNA).
She says SNA’s November 2021 Supply Chain Survey found virtually all programs reported shortages of menu items, supplies, and packaging, a number of ingredients that had been discontinued by manufacturers, higher costs compared to contracted bids, and staff shortages — all of which limit scratch cooking efforts. And now, the federal programs that ensured school meals for all be available during the pandemic may be discontinued, which could put many schools — and students — in difficult spots.
“Schools are still serving healthy meals, but most have had to reduce the number of menu options due to these problems,” Pratt-Heavner adds.
Nutrition Services Officer Betti Wiggins is in charge of serving around 186,000 daily meals to students in the Houston Independent School District. She says her food costs went up 65 percent this school year because of the challenges around supply chains, even as the federal government looks to roll back some of the financial assistance it gave districts to feed students at the height of the pandemic.
Wiggins says that while the district has always offered vegan and vegetarian options for those who request them, she views it more as a religious or dietary preference rather than something every student should receive. At the moment, she’s more concerned about having the foods on hand to honor her posted menu — and not repeating items too many times in a month.
“I’m having problems putting non-plant-base options on the trays, and even having the trays to put it on,” Wiggins says.
But longstanding systemic realities may pose a larger challenge for districts who want to increase the amount of plant-based foods they serve, advocates say. Public school districts purchase up to 20 percent of the ingredients and food products serve from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutritional Service (FNS) at a deeply subsidized cost. According to USDA data that was analyzed by FOE, 68 percent of the food USDA purchased from producers between 2017 and 2019 was meat, eggs, and dairy, with the vast majority of that coming from just 13 large companies — firms like Tyson, Cargill, and Smithfield.
Just 29 percent of the foods USDA procured in those two years were fruits and vegetables and less than 1 percent were plant-based proteins. FOE’s Hamerschlag says this is a result of decades of influence from big agriculture companies on the USDA’s school nutrition standards. But it could change again as early as this fall when the agency’s new “transitional standards” get released.
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FOE is asking USDA to vastly increase its list of allowable meat alternatives to include beans, peas, lentils, tofu, soy products, quinoa and other high-protein grains, and nuts and seeds — even when they are not recognizable as such. Hamerschlag points to chicken nuggets as not resembling poultry but passing as a meat. The group is also pushing to allow non-dairy milks to satisfy the USDA’s dairy requirement.
“The industry has so much power,” Hamerschlag says. “It’s why milk is one of five federally mandated components of school meals, even though [National Institute of Health] estimates that 60 to 80 percent of African Americans and 50 to 80 percent of Hispanic people are unable to process lactose. We really feel like the dairy requirement is unjust from a racial equity perspective.”
In a statement to Civil Eats, a USDA spokesperson says, “FNS is supportive of schools incorporating plant-based proteins into their menus for Child Nutrition Programs (CNP), 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.”
For example, in 2012, FNS updated its USDA Foods criteria to allow districts to be reimbursed for tofu rather than meat. And in 2019, FNS updated food crediting in all CNPs to allow operators to credit tempeh and pasta made with pea, lentil, and bean flour, for all meals and snacks.
None of the changes at FNS would have happened were it not for outside advocacy, however, and advocates point out that many challenges remain to ensure students throughout the country — and not just on the coasts — have access to plant-based meals. Hamerschlag says she hopes to see the USDA better align school meal programs with scientific evidence on climate change and public health guidance for healthy eating.
This includes disqualifying USDA foods vendors who repeatedly violate labor and environmental laws; requiring that the USDA fully disclose ingredient lists and sourcing information; increasing spending on produce to align USDA Foods purchases with dietary guidelines recommending increased consumption of plants and vegetables; and phasing out processed lunch meats and pepperoni, among other recommendations. Doing these things will “create a more level playing field” for plant-based sources of protein in school cafeterias.
“Until USDA is willing to make some changes, I think it’s going to be hard for school districts to make the kinds of significant menu shifts that we need to create healthier meals for kids, give them more culturally appropriate options, and climate-friendly choices,” Hamerschlag says.
But if past is prologue, meat and dairy lobbyists will counter these measures. The meat industry has pushed back against the Meatless Monday movement, efforts to change the U.S. dietary guidelines, and other moves to reduce meat consumption on any kind of large scale. And despite plenty of vocal messaging from vegans and other plant-based advocates, meat consumption has continued to rise in the U.S. over the last decade.
As advocates wait for regulatory changes they say are needed, new funding buckets could help ease the financial burdens of districts that want to provide more vegan options. A state bill that passed the California House of Representatives would reimburse districts $0.20 per plant-based meal and $0.10 per milk alternative served to students.
An additional $0.20 per meal would be a 5.5 percent increase to the average federal reimbursement rate of $3.66. And the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act, a federal bill introduced in Congress last summer by Representative Nydia M. Valázquez (D-New York) and Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) would create $10 million in grants for which school districts can apply to help offset the costs of expanding plant-based meals, including culinary training for food service staff, procurement costs of plant-based foods, taste-tests of new menu items, added labor costs associated with preparing plant-based meals from scratch, and training partnerships with vegan food businesses.
On February 22, Grammy award-winning recording artist Billie Eilish joined Trinidad and vegan activists from FOE and other organizations on Capitol Hill to build support for the bill before members of Congress. Trinidad says the bill, which had 28 co-sponsors in mid-February, is on track to get to 100.
“Our coalition centers the students’ voices,” says Trinidad, who has worked with several young people who were motivated to give up meat and dairy our of concerns for animals and the environment — as well as in response to their own serious health challenges.
“The most heartbreaking story for me was of a child who, at age 12, was overweight and had markers of chronic illness. He joined a program I managed for adults who were on Medicaid. I remember reading the intake form to him and adjusting it to a 12-year-old. He told me that he wanted to do sports,” she said. “That is all he wanted — to feel good enough physically and mentally to make the team. But he couldn’t because he was often out of breath and energy. He told me that when he tried to bring healthy food to school, other kids made fun of him, so he stopped. I can still see the sadness in his face.”
In Portland, Maine, vegan options every day
Some districts aren’t waiting on policy change to offer more plant-based meals to their students. Ten elementary schools in Portland, Maine, offer a hot, vegan lunch every day — with options like falafel, vegan kung pao tofu with rice, and rice and beans — as a complement to the typical hamburgers, chicken patties, and macaroni and cheese.
Portland parent and plant-based food columnist Avery Yale Kamila began advocating for vegan hot lunch in 2018 so her son Alden — who has a dairy allergy — could eat what his friends were eating at school. Yale Kamila found a friendly collaborator in Jane McLucas, food service director with the Portland Public Schools, and consulted with her on sample menus that were achievable under the USDA guidelines. By the start of the 2019-2020 school year, daily plant-based hot lunches were a reality in every Portland elementary school.
Yale Kamila says the district can do a better job training cafeteria staff on how to prepare and offer plant-based dishes to students, but sees great promise in the program.
“These kids are at a formative time in their life when their taste preferences and cultural habits are forming,” she says, adding that Alden’s generation — Generation Alpha — could be the “most plant-based generation ever,” according to one studyshowing that 72 percent of millennials with kids regularly eat vegan meals. “As a culture, if we want to move to a more sustainable diet, we have to get the young people to go there, because they’ll still be here [when we’re gone].”