Following the launch of Friends of Animals’ nationwide campaign to persuade more school districts to add daily vegan entrées to their lunch menus, the animal advocacy organization has submitted a rulemaking petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting that the agency overhaul its draconian National School Lunch Program, which was enacted by Congress in 1946.

The goal of the petition is to overcome the clear regulatory hurdles that discourage schools from offering vegan entrées and non-dairy beverages. Currently, the NSLP regulations reward a prevalence of processed meat and cheese-heavy school lunch options because schools are required to serve dairy and meet federal nutrition requirements to be reimbursed for meals.

“The current regulations impose significant limitations on the types of vegan protein products that can be credited. Not to mention right now schools don’t have to offer a substitute for dairy milk unless someone has a doctor’s note, even though there are many kids who are lactose intolerant or have ethical objections to it,” explained Jennifer Best, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.

According to Harvard Medical School, 90 percent of individuals from Eastern Asia, 80 percent of American Indians, 65 percent of Africans and African-Americans, and 50 percent of Hispanics are lactose intolerant.

“Many children depend on school meals, and it is incumbent that our schools provide food that is nutritious and ethically sourced,” Best said. “We must create a path for future generations to eat food that doesn’t depend on exploiting animals or destroying the environment—what better place to start than our schools?”

If the USDA does not respond in a timely manner or denies the legal rulemaking petition, FoA will consider challenging the USDA in court.

Presently, almost 100,000 schools are involved in the NSLP, offering affordable or free meals to students. FoA points out that a significant change needed to improve school nutrition is the increased use of protein-rich beans, peas and lentils, as well as a greater use of vegan proteins low in saturated fat. Removing restrictions related to visible forms of soy and tofu products can further benefit meal planning budgets. Many generic and unprocessed soy and tofu products are lower in cost than other proteins and are presently being added to international school lunch programs in forms that are not visible, such as soy flour, to increase student protein intake as cost-effectively as possible.

In addition to preventing animal cruelty and improving health, overhauling the school lunch program can help stop the climate crisis from intensifying. Compared to a meat-heavy diet, a vegan, plant-based diet results in 75 percent less land use, 54 percent less water use, and 66 percent less loss of biodiversity. One cup of dairy milk accounts for three times as many greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk.

“The meat, egg and dairy industries have had a stranglehold on USDA policies and that’s why our legal petition is so sorely needed. We need new regulations so schools that want more animal- and climate-friendly cafeterias are no longer crippled and kids who are vegan are no longer discriminated against,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “It’s important we help our nation’s school districts walk the walk when it comes to inclusion and equity.”