By Scott Smith

Friends of Animals is making strides in overhauling the meat-centric, cheese-heavy, milk-soaked National School Lunch Program. As we reported in our Spring 2024 Action Line cover story, we’re calling on an increasing number of public-school cafeterias to offer daily vegan lunch entrées to students and having those healthful options highlighted on school menus so more families know that inclusive, climate-friendly and cruelty-free lunch fare is available to their children.

But we know what we’re up against. 

A recent exposé by details a years-long effort by the meat industry to curry favor with educators, part of a well-funded disinformation campaign aimed at reaching younger people who, studies show, may be less likely to eat beef.  

“Over the past eight years, the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture (AFBFA) has produced industry-backed lesson plans, learning resources, in-person events, and webinars as part of a program to boost the cattle industry’s reputation,” reports The AFBFA’s goal is to “leave schoolteachers with a ‘more positive perception’ of the beef industry, the funding documents reveal.”

One lesson plan provided as part of the program directs students to beef industry resources to help devise a school menu. In another lesson plan students are directed to create a presentation for a conservation agency regarding the introduction of cattle into their ecological preserve.

“This goes to show the truly gross way the beef industry is targeting children,” said Prisicilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “Friends of Animals’ campaign to get more vegan school lunches in cafeterias across the United States and our forthcoming legal petition asking the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to change its regulations to make vegan lunches more accessible for schools and students could not be coming at a better time.”

The legal petition, which FoA’s Wildlife Law Program is spearheading, will argue for the need to change the current school lunch program and will detail the many ways plant-based vegan options are better for our kids, animals and the planet.

Big Meat and its partner-in-crime Big Milk are desperately trying to counter science-based findings that prove just how disastrous animal agriculture is to the world these students are inheriting: Compared to vegan diets, meat-heavy diets result in 75 percent more land use, 54 percent more water use, and 66 percent less biodiversity. No amount of greenwashing is going to change those facts.

That hasn’t stopped meat and dairy lobbyists from trying. In the U.S., about 800 times more public funding and 190 times more lobbying money go to animal-source food products than plant-based alternatives. That’s the analysis from a study by Stanford University that revealed how meat and dairy industry lobbying has influenced government regulations and funding to stifle competition from alternative meat products, reports the One Earth research journal.

Borrowing a page from Big Oil (and before that, Big Tobacco) to fight science with spin, the meat and dairy industry sent three times as many delegates to the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai than the year before, reported The Guardian. Their mission: Fight a plan developed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to call on rich nations to cut meat consumption. A 2021 NYU study also confirmed that these companies and their cronies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against climate policies and funding dubious research that tries to blur the links between animal agriculture and global warming. 

The ‘Milk Mandate’ has got to go

Colluding with fossil-fuel interests to muddy the waters of climate science at a Petrostate confab is bad enough. It’s in U.S. school lunchrooms where the meat and dairy industry are really making a last-ditch stand to keep polluting the hearts and minds of teachers and students. In what’s called the “government’s Milk Mandate,” the dairy lobby continues to prevent school districts from being reimbursed for any of the costs of breakfast and lunch offerings unless each school provides cows’ milk for every student receiving nutrition assistance. Milk consumption overall continues to decline, and plant-based milks now account for 16 percent of sales of fluid milk. But as a result of decades’ of lobbying by the dairy industry, the percentage of more healthful and equally nutritious plant-based milk options offered in schools remains less than 1 percent, cites the Center for a Humane Economy

Animal farming apologists in Congress continue to do Big Milk’s bidding. Last year, after the USDA announced a potential ban on flavored milks to reduce added sugars in school lunches, dairy groups lobbied for the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, which would continue to force low-fat flavored and whole milks on school students. “If school milk sales decline, farmers and processors stand to lose an important part of their market,” admitted Daily Dairy Report’s Betty Berning.

Overall, the USDA has spent almost $50 billion in subsidies for livestock operators since 1995, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. By contrast, since 2018 the USDA has spent less than $30 million to support plant-based proteins that produce fewer greenhouse gases and require less land than livestock.

Big Beef indoctrinating science teachers concerns Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami. The meat and dairy industry is a well-organized machine, she pointed out to “It’s a little terrifying to me that I don’t see anyone out in front of this—I don’t see the counterpoint to what they’re doing in schools,” she said.

Counters FoA’s Feral: “Friends of Animals’ newest campaign is making sure that schoolkids know that eating animals will never be a morally or environmentally acceptable thing to do. We’re amplifying that message across the U.S., one lunchroom at a time.”