Getting Plant-Based Entrees in Schools

Schools are the place where children go to learn each day. Parents count on the school doing everything they can to protect their children. And yet there is one area where the school is usually out of step with what research shows will protect our children – food and nutrition. This is not unique to schools – it is a society wide problem. Despite updated meal and snack standards, schools are still full of unhealthy food. Candy at Halloween, bake sales, cupcakes for birthday parties, chocolate milk at breakfast and lunch, highly processed breakfasts, and lunch entrees that resemble fast food (though they are likely to have far less sodium and fat, in order to meet the regulations). Wellness policies, required by the federal government, are supposed to address nutrition guidelines, but often times the policy is largely ignored.

This article focuses on school lunches.

Schools in New York City, Ithaca, NY, and one small upstate district work in partnership with the Coalition for Healthy School Food. In Ithaca and the small school district, vegan entrees have been added to the menus. In New York City, the Coalition worked with the New York City Office of School Food to create a vegetarian menu and offer it to schools as an option. As a result, there are now at least five vegetarian schools in New York City (and likely more between the time this article was written and published!). Offering vegan entrees does not cost more – if it did, schools would not be able to offer them. Schools have about $1.10 to spend on the actual food costs for a lunch, out of the $3.23 reimbursement for a student receiving a free meal. The rest of the money goes to cover staff pay and benefits, equipment repair and replacement, and sometimes utilities. Expensive ingredients are not possible. So non-dairy cheese, tempeh, and avocados, and many of the faux-meats are not likely to be on school menus. Exciting ways to add vegan options to menus includes special days: Meatless Mondays, Try It Tuesdays, Wellness Wednesdays, or World Food Day Thursdays. They could add hummus or cold bean salads that count as a meat alternate to their salad bars. It’s important to have a basic understanding of the school meal program, before trying to work with a school to make changes. Working to change school food takes time and requires resources. Developing relationships is important, as is being able to determine your point of entry into the system. If the Food Service Director is not receptive, you may need to go to the school board or superintendent. But it would be best to go directly to the Food Service Director first, so that they feel respected. Work with them and be helpful – they don’t need more work to do, as they are overwhelmed, so getting extra feet on the ground to help implement changes is important. See the Food Service Director as your friend, because if you are serious about creating change, you will be spending a lot of time with them. The Coalition for Healthy School Food can help by providing advice, recipes, and resources. Schools may be “Self-Op” meaning the school district employs the food service personnel, or they may work with an outside company (Contract Management). Either way, the funding for school meals does not come from the school budget, the program operates separately. Funds come from federal and state reimbursements (most, but not all states provide an additional reimbursement), paid meals, a la carte sales, and catering. Some schools do a lot of scratch cooking, and some do none, using all frozen, canned, or otherwise packaged foods. Some schools cook/prepare food out of a central kitchen, distributing food to other schools in the district, while others do this in their own kitchens. For lunch, five categories of food must be offered: meat or meat alternate, grain, vegetable, fruit, and milk. Of these five components of food, only three components need to be taken in order for the meal to be reimbursable by the government, and at least one of the components needs to be either a fruit or a vegetable. For each child receiving a free meal, the federal government will reimburse a school in the $3.23 (rates are higher in high need schools, Alaska, and Hawaii). As a reminder, about $1.10 of this is for the food cost. The meal standards implemented in 2012 require more fruits and vegetables, subcategories of vegetables which must be served at least once a week (greens, red/orange, legumes, starchy, and other), whole grains, sodium limites, and calorie ranges. Schools were required to offer grains that were “100% whole grain rich”. But in a classic example of food industry spin, whole grain rich actually means 50% whole grain. Now, schools can receive an exemption for grains and can reduce their grains to 80% whole grain rich (40% whole grain).

The categories that offer the greatest opportunity for improvement are the dairy and the meat categories.

Milk MUST be offered, but it does not have to be taken. It would take an act of Congress to change this. Given this reality, there are three things schools can do to reduce milk consumption:

  1. Eliminate chocolate milk as an option.
  2. Make sure the free water, which is required by federal law to be available in the cafeterias, is available, and that students are able to get up to get it, or that it is brought to their table.
  3. Offer non-dairy milks. When a student has a note from their parent or doctor that they need a non-dairy milk, a school may, but is not obligated to provide it. Non-dairy milks cost more, and reimbursements do not cover the added cost. The non-dairy milk must also meet certain nutrient requirements.

The meat/meat alternate category allows for serving beans, lentils, split peas, tofu, processed meats, and non-dairy yogurt (this would not be affordable for schools). Generally, the serving size for legumes is ½ cup of beans, lentils, or split peas. For tofu it’s 4.4 ounces. Manufactured vegan items would do well to apply for the Child Nutrition (CN) label. This allows food service directors to feel sure that the product will qualify as a meat/meat alternate. One frozen product that we love is falafel tots from American Bean Products. In all the schools we’ve tested them in, they’ve been a big hit. The Coalition for Healthy School Food has recipes which qualify as a meat alternate. These are plant-powered entrees from around the world and are bean, lentil, or tofu based. Some of the favorites are West African Beans and Greens, Ms. Patel’s Rajma, North African Red Lentils, Awesome Bean Burger, and Pasta Faggioli.