Darien, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals is applauding Norwalk Public Schools—which is comprised of nearly 12,000 students—because starting in November it will have a daily vegan lunch entrée, including items such as hummus, chik’n nuggets, sweet and crunchy chickpea wraps, Impossible beef crumbles, Impossible burgers and a Mediterranean salad.

“As an international animal and vegan advocacy group working to prevent animal cruelty and the climate crisis from intensifying, FoA is concerned that our nation’s school lunch program is being controlled by the meat and dairy industry,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “Pound for pound, lamb, beef and yes, cheese, generate the most greenhouse gases of all protein entrée categories, according to the World Resources Institute.”

FoA first started probing the National School Lunch Program last year when New York City public school cafeterias introduced “Vegan Fridays” as part of a new policy from Mayor Eric Adams, who was motivated by his own plant-based, vegan lifestyle. What raised FoA’s eyebrows was that there were no alternatives to dairy milk on the NYC menu.

Under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Truman in 1946, schools are required to serve dairy milk and meet federal nutrition requirements to be reimbursed by the NSLP for meals. In addition, schools that participate in the NSLP receive US Department of Agriculture foods known as “entitlement” foods. The amount of donated agricultural commodities and other USDA foods available to a state each year for the NSLP is based on the number of reimbursable lunches served in the previous school year multiplied by the federal per meal rate.

Not surprisingly, there are 13 beef, 9 poultry, 7 ham, and 18 cheese products on the USDA food list for the 2023-2024 school year. Meat “alternatives” are Alaska pollock and catfish.

“USDA regulations that hinder vegan, climate-friendly cafeteria food must go,” Feral said.

Because of the clear regulatory hurdles that discourage schools from offering vegan lunches, FoA is poised to file a legal petition asking the USDA to change its regulations. If the agency denies the petition, FoA could challenge its decision.

FoA spent several weeks of back and forth conversations with food services staff in Norwalk to achieve the current menu that makes the district a leader in vegan lunch options in the state. Norwalk joins LA Unified School District and Portland, Maine Public Schools when it comes to creating a gold standard for making daily vegan school lunches the norm.

This is astoundingly good news for animals and the environment. Not to mention, vegan food is more inclusive.

“It’s so important that we as a district walk the walk when talking about equity and inclusion for all students,” said Kara Nelson Baekey, Norwalk Board of Education member. “Dietary needs and preferences are an area that most don’t consider when thinking about these commitments, so thank you to Friends of Animals for bringing it to our attention, and for providing your invaluable insights.”

Feral pressed to have all the vegan offerings listed on the menus available on the Norwalk Public Schools website. Having traditional and vegan options presented every day on a menu makes it easier to choose the vegan option, especially for younger kids, Feral pointed out.

Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut has committed to using the label VE on their menus to identify their daily vegan options—which started with Impossible Burgers in October. They will begin testing chik’n nuggets and meatless meatballs in November. According to food and nutrition manager Randall Mel, Jr., Middletown will also add vegan side dishes with recipes from one of their own teachers. The icing on the vegan cake: The menu includes organic fruits and vegetables from local farms.

“We are so pleased with Middletown’s response. Not only are they featuring vegan items more prominently in their school lunch program, but their menu also minimizes pesticides on food,” Feral said. “Providing organic items is a win for students, wildlife and the environment.”

FoA is also cheering Westport Public Schools, which will start including daily vegan options in its cafeterias in November. And staff from Connecticut’s Stamford Public Schools confirmed that they were working toward providing a vegan entrée everyday—currently it offers them only sporadically.

“Putting together menus that provide a full range of daily vegan entrée options that are not only delicious and nutritious but also meet federal and local guidelines is no easy task because of an antiquated law allowing the USDA to cripple schools,” said Feral. “Vegan entrées should be more than a side of veggies or a sunflower butter sandwich, which has become ubiquitous across the country, instead of truly developing a plant-based vegan menu that reflects the diversity of students’ cultural, philosophical and health preferences,” Feral added. “It’s unacceptable.”