The UK’s first entirely plant-based school kitchen is now open, and the meatless lunches are a hit with students, teachers, and parents alike.
Our Lady of Sion School in Worthing, West Sussex, is collaborating with local company Plant Based School Kitchens (PBSK) to serve up wholesome vegan dishes to its pupils. These include lentil shepherd’s pie, quesadillas, curries, aubergine parmigiana, and even a “fakeaway Friday” burger and chips, along with various desserts and puddings.
The UK’s first plant-based school kitchen
PBSK founders Gary and Anna Hardley are well-known for their eatery the Vegan Street Food Company, which is also located in Worthing. They started the school dinner initiative after hearing Our Lady of Sion’s headteacher Steven Jefferey was impressed with their vegan, gluten-free food. The couple already felt passionate about encouraging others to experience the benefits of a plant-based diet, particularly local youths, after they themselves went vegan and noticed significant health improvements.
“With governments across the globe encouraging eating less meat and consuming more plant-based meals, there is also great focus on bringing plant-based kitchens into schools and other establishments,” explains Gary. “Ethical eating and farming [are] vital to the longevity of the planet and feeding children in schools has too often been about profit rather than nutrition.”
While it’s tricky to find hard data showing a causal relationship between a school’s endorsement of plant-based food and overall success, it appears that this might be the case. One public school (PS 244Q) in Flushing, Queens, reported fewer sick days and impressive standardized test scores. Plus, other data backs up the perceived health benefits of plants.
“Schools are seeing measurable results from a plant-based diet,” says Gary. “By eating more nutrient-dense foods with high hydration and carbohydrates to increase energy, students can focus on school and be alert and wake in the classroom.”
It should also be noted that Our Lady of Sion has not banned meat from the premises, and children can bring whatever they choose as part of a packed lunch. Instead, the new school dinners have been chosen to enable young people to explore the flavors and benefits of plant-based food.
Plant-based food confers ‘health and environmental benefits’
Eating plant-based food isn’t a magic bullet for health or the planet, but fresh produce is undeniably efficient to grow and nutritious to eat. Growing crops for human consumption is efficient and requires far less land, water, and other resources than meat or dairy. In contrast, animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, but it also causes water pollution and increases the risk of zoonotic diseases.
Reports from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and World Health Organization (WHO) specifically highlight the need to swap animal products for plants, where possible, to optimize human health, food production, and climate crisis mitigation.
Our Lady of Sion School’s move is a reflection of changing attitudes towards meat in the UK, in particular. The vegan market is booming thanks to flexitarians looking to eat fewer animal products and more plants. This is primarily for the sake of personal health, followed by environmental considerations, and then animal welfare.
Naturally, this national (and global) shift in the way people shop, cook, and eat extends to what families prepare for their children, and more kids are eating vegan food than ever before.
Should more schools adopt plant-based kitchens?
As the UK’s post-Brexit, post-lockdown cost-of-living crisis exacerbates already deeply troubling food inequality, ensuring children get the nutritious food they need is particularly urgent. (The US also struggles with childhood malnutrition, and 2017 saw approximately one out of every six young Americans living in food-insecure households. This has worsened since the spread and impact of COVID.)
Ensuring kids get at least one nutrient-dense meal per day can help support low-income families and prevent the worst youth malnourishment. Thanks to the health benefits of plant-based staples like produce, providing vegan school dinners is one way of supporting this.
Gary believes the new menus will help support students in their studies and throughout their day-to-day lives. “From the calcium found in broccoli to the iron found in leafy vegetables, plant foods offer abundant nutrients for kids to grow and students to learn,” he says.
All of the fresh fruit and vegetables for PBSK’s meals are sourced locally from independent supermarkets, and the menu is structured and updated around seasonal produce to match. This maximizes the nutritional content of ingredients and further reduces the kitchen’s carbon footprint. The company is also partnered with GoClimate, a social enterprise built around helping businesses further reduce their CO2 emissions.
Our Lady of Sion isn’t alone in its transition to plant-based. Many schools are choosing to swap animal products for vegetarian alternatives due to this combination of health and environmental benefits. There’s still a long way to go, but if trends continue, it could become even more commonplace for schools to prioritize and promote plant-based meals.