Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy organization founded in 1957, wants to overhaul the meat-centric, cheese-heavy National School Lunch Program by getting daily vegan entrée options in an increasing number of public-school cafeterias and to get them highlighted on school menus.

The organization’s initial efforts have been successful. After weeks of conversations between FoA and food services staff in Norwalk, Connecticut, as of November all Norwalk Public Schools—which is comprised of nearly 12,000 students—will have a daily vegan lunch entrée, including items such as hummus, chik’n nuggets, sweet and crunchy chickpea wraps, and Impossible beef crumbles and burgers.

“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 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.”

Having daily vegan lunches available is astoundingly good news for animals and the environment. A vegan Beyond Burger generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, 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.

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 for bringing it to our attention, and for providing your invaluable insights.”

While FoA will continue to use its influence to make vegan lunches the norm in other school districts, it is also poised to take legal action against the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. FoA’s legal petition will press the agency to change regulations that hinder vegan, climate-friendly cafeteria food. If the agency denies the petition, FoA could challenge its decision.

The regulatory hurdles that discourage schools from offering vegan lunches became evident to FoA when probing the National School Lunch Program last year after 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture foods known as “entitlement” foods. 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.

Despite the USDA hurdles, FoA has been delighted to find schools across the country creating a gold standard for offering daily vegan school lunches—including LA Unified School District, which operates the second largest National School Lunch Program in the United States; Portland, Maine Public Schools; and Middletown and Westport Public Schools in Connecticut.

“Putting together menus that provide a 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 sunflower butter sandwich, which has become ubiquitous across the country, instead of developing a vegan menu that reflects the diversity of students’ cultural, philosophical and health preferences,” Feral added. “It’s unacceptable.”

Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy organization, advocates for the rights of animals, free-living and domestic around the world.