Author: Matthew Vulpis

Will Children Lead The True Vegan Revolution? When We Give Them Choices, They May.

Vegetarian and vegan diets, which is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose, has seen an increased interest in recent years across the world. More and more, consumers are considering making the switch to a vegan diet lifestyle, for the health benefits, and the advantages that being a vegan can provide to the environment.

This growth is well documented, as  a global survey conducted in 2021 by Rakuten found that 81 percent of consumers had tried plant-based milk, 48 percent had tried other dairy alternatives, 44 percent had tried vegan meat alternatives and 25 percent had tried a vegan egg replacement. Furthermore,  a NSF survey found that 88 percent of food industry practitioners said that they expect demand for plant-based products to increase, as more consumers continue to give veganism a try.

With the swift surge in vegan consumer numbers, an abundance of restaurants and food organizations are quickly attempting to add plant-based options to their repertoire. However, they’re not the only industry adding more vegan choices to their menus, as a variety of public venues are also extending their options into the plant-based realm. Of these public sites adding vegan choices, public schools, all the way from kindergarten to universities are the most prominent sectors beginning to roll out more vegan options.

The rapid growth of vegan options in public schools is being driven by the students themselves, many of which identify as flexitarians. 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” just 14 percent of school districts nationwide offer plant-based meals in at least one school.

However, across the U.S., this is changing quickly, as states and cities increasingly add some form of vegan option to their menu. For example, earlier this year New York City started a new initiative, where on Fridays, public schools will offer plant-based food as the primary option. The initiative applied to all 1,700 NYC public schools, meaning the vegan meals are available for free to the 930,000 children who attend NYC public schools.

Another example, this time on the west coast instead of the east, can be found in California, where the newly enacted 2022-23 state budget includes a one-time $100 million fund to help districts provide plant-based or restricted diet meals. According to the measure, it will assist schools “to procure California-grown or California-produced, sustainably grown, whole or minimally processed foods, including for use in plant-based or restricted-diet meals, or to prepare meals fresh onsite.”

Finally, on a federal level, the recently House committee-passed child nutrition reauthorization bill would create a pilot program providing education and technical assistance to support school meal programs that serve plant-based meals. The bill — the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act — cleared the House Education and Labor Committee by a 27-20 vote in late July along partisan lines without any Republican support. 

The increased use of plant-based foods by public school systems comes with an abundance of benefits, for students, and the environment. For the students, providing healthful plant-based meals in schools sets an example for students to learn to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods from an early age. Plant-based meals provide excellent nutrition—they are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that boost students’ health. They also have fewer problems with acne, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems than their peers who eat animal products.

As for the environment, the damage being done to the earth’s environment as a result of rapidly increasing meat production and consumption is a huge factor in the rise of veganism. Today, livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gasses. In fact, each year, a single cow will belch about 220 pounds of methane, which is shorter lived than carbon dioxide, but 28 times more potent. By adding plant-based options in substitute for traditional meat, schools help America cutback on its livestock emissions, creating a better, safer environment for the future.

Overall, with the number of consumers living a vegan lifestyle expected to continue to grow in numbers, both in America and around the world, schools would be hard pressed not to begin offering plant-based options. Fast-food chains around the country are racing to add plant-based substitutes to their menus, driven by record sales. If McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are filling their menus with tasty, protein-filled vegan alternatives, public schools can too.