USDA regulations that hinder vegan, climate-friendly cafeteria food must go 

By Nicole Rivard 

Friends of Animals first started probing the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) last year when New York City public school cafeterias announced “Vegan Fridays” as part of a new policy from Mayor Eric Adams, who was motivated by his own plant-based, vegan lifestyle.  

Now referred to as “Plant-Powered Fridays” because vegetarian options are available, the menu includes at least three vegan entrees such as kidney bean rajma served with naan; three bean chili and veggie nuggets.  

NYC also has “Meatless Mondays, so we applaud that meat is off the menu two days a week for the 1.1 million NYC students who attend public schools. What raised our eyebrows was that there were no alternatives to dairy milk on the NYC menus.  

We were told that 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, nine poultry, seven ham, and 18 cheese products on the USDA food list for the 2023-2024 school year. Meat “alternatives” are Alaska pollock and catfish.  

As an 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. Pound for pound, lamb, beef and yes, cheese, generate the most greenhouse gases of all protein entrée categories, according to the World Resources Institute.  

A vegan Beyond Burger, on the other hand, generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy and has 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef. That means a 41-square-foot plot of land can produce just one beef burger for every 15 Beyond Burgers. 

It is paramount to make school food healthier and more climate-friendly. 

Business as usual for Big Ag 

One of the first tallies of the meat and dairy sector’s ecological cost dates to 2006 when a report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization attributed 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions to livestock. 

In October, we learned through a bombshell report by The Guardian that ex-officials at FAO were censored and undermined when the report was published. Complaints that “the FAO has fallen into the hands of vegan activists” and personal threats such as “the anti-livestock people are a pest that needs to be eradicated” were commonplace.  

The report set off an industry lobbying coalition hellbent on infiltrating and controlling climate science and the public’s understanding of the problem.  

“The bloody meat industry fears the nation is in the hands of vegan activists. It’s no wonder that unearthing initiatives aimed at making vegan school lunches mainstream is so labor intensive,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals.  

Schools setting the gold standard in vegan lunches 

We’ve looked far and wide across the U.S. to find school districts that are succeeding in making vegan school lunches the norm in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. While there is consistently a prevalence of processed meat and cheese-heavy entrees, the availability of vegan food and non-dairy beverages at schools across the country varies greatly,  

“Putting together menus that provide a full range of daily vegan entree 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 entrees 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.” 

That’s why FoA is pressing NYC to make more progress. While vegan entrees sometimes appear Tuesday through Thursday, school menus only guarantee the sun butter sandwich daily. 

“If Los Angeles Unified School District, which operates the second largest National School Lunch Program in the United States, can move the needle and offer a variety of vegan options daily, any school can follow their lead,” Feral said. 

Adding a daily vegan menu option at a limited number of schools in a 2017 pilot program was so successful, LA Unified, which is comprised of 420,454 students, has since expanded it to every school. Items include three-bean chili,  burrito, chik’n sandwich and Impossible burger.  

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

“We are a very diverse community, and needs are different,” said Manish Singh, LA Unified’s director of food services. My team’s goal is one simple thing: “What the kids want to eat, have that.” 

Since some brands of soy milk and one brand of oat milk meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for fluid milk substitutes, LA Unified makes soy milk available by parent/student request. They must fill out a form and send it in. The schools can receive USDA reimbursement if the written request is on file. 

“Everything we offer at LAUSD has been reviewed by a team of four nutritionists very well versed in school regulations,” Singh explained. “All the vegan options we have on our menu are reimbursable meals,” Singh said.  

Students, families, legislators can affect change 

Singh pointed out LA Unified’s pilot program was introduced by a former vegetarian school board president, and vegan students made sure it expanded rather than withered away when he left. During testimony in front of the Board of Education, 10th grader Lila Copeland pointed out that the World Health Organization concluded that consuming animal products causes heart disease, diabetes, cancer, bone loss and obesity. 

“Why on earth would we continue to feed our children these products?” Copeland asked. “Because an outdated USDA driven by special interests keeps telling us year after year that it is good for us. Because since the Stone Age our parents have gone along with culture and conditioning and fed it to us. The most dangerous words in the English language are: “We have always done it this way.” 

Another LA high school student, 2023 graduate Marielle Williamson, prompted a first-of-its-kind settlement that allows students to question dairy in schools. The legal action was prompted by Eagle Rock High School’s refusal to allow Williamson—a senior at the time—to share information about plant-based milk or express criticism of the dairy industry in the school cafeteria without providing pro-dairy content. 

Now others who want to speak out against the dairy industry’s stranglehold on school lunch programs to affect change have the ability to do so. 

Feral wasn’t satisfied with the same old, same old in the city of Norwalk, Conn., where her granddaughter currently attends elementary school. When she saw that the only meatless, dairy-free entrée on the school menu was a sun butter and grape jelly sandwich, she fought for change and won.  

After FoA spent several weeks of back and forth conversations with food services staff, as of November all Norwalk public schools—which is comprised of nearly 12,000 students—have a daily vegan lunch entrée, including items such as hummus, chik’n nuggets, sweet and crunchy chickpea wraps, Impossible beef crumbles and Impossible burgers. 

“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, Board of Education member. “Dietary needs and preferences are an area that most don’t consider when thinking about these commitments, so thank you 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. LA Unified goes a step further by using the YumYummi mobile app so students can see the vegan options on their smartphones. Remarkably, vegan items are given as much prominence as the meat-based hot lunch items. 

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.  

That’s why we are also highlighting Middletown Public Schools in Connecticut, which FoA also approached. They committed to using the label VE on their menus to identify their daily vegan options—which started with Impossible Burgers in October. They began testing chik’n nuggets and meatless meatballs in November. According to food and nutrition manager Randall Mel, Jr. Middletown also added vegan side dishes with recipes from one of their own K-third-grade 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 in CT, which started including a daily vegan options in its cafeterias in November. Portland Maine’s public schools also impressed us as they feature daily vegan entree items on their menus. The 10 elementary schools offer a variety— such as a rice and bean bowl, chili, bean taco cup and chik’n tenders—while middle and high schools just offer a vegan veggie burger.  

“Parents pushed the district to become a national leader in this space. They’re just advocating for their kids to have the same meal options at school as they do at home,” said Lori Beatham, food service manager for Portland Public Schools.  

Works in progress 

Some schools have begun to transition their menus to include what they call “more plant forward” items. The truth is, they’ve just increased their vegetarian, cheese-heavy options. 

For example, under a new law that went into effect in August 2023—all Illinois schools must provide a vegetarian meal that meets federal nutrition regulations to all students who request it. On their menus a green leaf signals something is meatless, but not vegan. 

Likewise, the DC Healthy Schools Act, which has been in place since 2010 and was amended in 2018, requires vegetarian options to be provided at breakfast and lunch—it only encourages vegan options. On the bright side, food service providers do accommodate vegan preferences for participating students.  

Texas’ Austin Unified School District has vegan options daily only at the high school, including Rebellyous plant-based tenders. Students can also build their own vegan bowl. At all other schools, AUSD offers vegetarian or vegan options daily.  

“We will accommodate vegan students when there are no vegan items on the menu by preparing food for them. This is not required by the USDA, and many districts do not make these accommodations, but we feel it is important,” said Rachel Dunne, dietitian, adding that soy milk is also available on request.  

While Minneapolis Public Schools do not have daily vegan options, when pressed by FoA, the district agreed to at least include the vegan items it does have on its online menu to make the choices more visible.  

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. 

Taking on the USDA 

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.  

“Friends of Animals expects, with your help, to achieve daily vegan entree options in an increasing number of public-school cafeterias,” Feral said. “If students are learning in classrooms that animal farming drives global warming, they should be able to choose a meal that doesn’t contain any animal products throughout the school day. Not to mention they can feel good about not contributing to the animal cruelty inherent in animal farming. Animals don’t exist to be our food.”