There has been an explosion of interest since the New York City Department of Education (DOE) began rolling out Vegan Friday meals for students on February 7. Pundits are rushing to the nearest microphone to yell about it, declaring: Anarchy! Socialism! And this isn’t vegan at all (because they offer milk to students per USDA dietary guidelines)! And they’re right, it is a big deal for the largest school system in America, at just shy of one million students, to make such a big change. This change, however, isn’t as big as the reactionaries would have us believe. And it could lead to some major changes in sustainable eating.
I wish my school lunch menu had more diversity, or enough to model how to eat vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian. Growing up in a small town in Texas, there were two meals I knew I could count on from our school cafeteria: a Grandy’s-style chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans on Tuesdays and pizza (always dunked in a side of ranch dressing) with a salad on Fridays. Both were served up like clockwork, creating almost Pavlovian hunger cues that normalized these comfort foods as go-tos for me. I can still smell those meals and remember how they tasted, even though I haven’t had them in 25 years. However, I’m hard-pressed to remember any school meals that I, as an adult, would consider healthy—let alone fresh and sustainable.
The program in NYC is getting mixed reviews—from glowing to GAH! But this isn’t the first time school districts have instituted plant-based eating. Since 2017, they have been a regular part of school nutrition. It’s been available to students and, in fact, is a way to slowly introduce sustainable changes well beyond school. Great, right? So why all the hububub now? It’s in the branding.
The evolution of healthy school food
Trends have changed in school lunches. Chef Jamie Oliver set out to make school lunches healthy and fresh in the UK in 2003 and brought his revolution to the U.S. in 2010. Then-president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama started the Let’s Move! program to battle childhood obesity and ended up passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to help school meals catch up to modern USDA dietary suggestions. That change in standards required more whole grains, increased the portion size for fruits and vegetables—and required the selection of a fruit or vegetable—limited starchy vegetables, and shifted mandated milk consumption to low-fat or no-fat milk only.
Jessica Ramos, who represents District 13, including Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, in the New York State Senate, tweeted out a photo of her child’s school lunch along with her critique, calling the program “not thought through.” Hopefully, that’s something the DOE can correct as they work with certified dietitians and professional chefs to develop the menu, although it seems like having vegan options on offer all along would make the schools more well-prepared for the shift. The Vegan Friday meals that are currently on the weekly menu have been taste-tested by small groups of students, the DOE says, and menus are made available online a month ahead of time so students and their families can plan accordingly to opt-out if it’s not to the student’s liking.
Mayor Eric Adams may flip-flop on his own plant-based diet, but he spearheaded the district’s implementation of Meatless Mondays in 2019 and its extension to Meatless Fridays in 2021.
“Plant-based options in schools means healthy eating and healthy living, and improving the quality of life for thousands of New York City students,” Mayor Adams told LIVEKINDLY in a statement. “Plant-based meals are delicious and nutritious, which is why I previously called for vegetarian and vegan options in schools. I’m thrilled to see that all students will now have access to healthy foods that will prevent debilitating health conditions.”
Sustainability enters the conversation
What Adams, who famously credits his mostly plant-based diet with reversing his diabetes diagnosis, is getting at is that offering students options can bring about incremental change. It can be the first step for many on the road to a healthier, longer life. It can also mean that as these students turn into adults whose eating habits have been shaped by opening their palates to vegan options, normalizing vegan eating, that it can eventually change the way New York as a whole eats—including potentially reducing the carbon footprint of the largest city in the nation by consuming less meat.
For many kids, removing the barriers of entry to eating a plant-based—or at the very least nutritious—meal is the first step to expanding their taste buds and putting them on the road to healthy and sustainable habits. And studies show that if you serve it, they will (eventually) try it. An evaluation of student food consumption in the American Journal of Preventitive Medicine found that when offered healthier options after the 2010 menu change passed by Congress, students opted for and consumed more fruit and more of the food on their plates overall.
Sustainability remains a challenge, however. The report notes that food waste from school lunches was significant before and after the nutrition recommendations were implemented, although not as widely reported through anecdotal evidence. The study suggests that high vegetable and fruit waste levels deserve further inspection. It finds, “Schools must also focus on the quality and palatability of the fruits and vegetables offered and on creative methods to engage students to taste and participate in [the] selection of menu items to decrease overall waste levels.”
“The DOE is committed to the health and wellbeing of every child, and having a consistent, nourishing and filling meal each day is essential in ensuring students can succeed both inside and outside the classroom,” Jenna Lyle, assistant press secretary for the NYC Department of Education, tells LIVEKINDLY in a statement. “Following on the success of Meatless Monday and Fridays, we are excited to be expanding access to healthy and nutritious food options for NYC students with the phasing in of a vegan-focused menu on Fridays.”
Accessibility is important and a key part of changing the eating habits of students. New York City introduced universal free breakfast and lunch in 2017 to erase the stigma of subsidized lunches. Vegan options were already available to students on-demand, as are halal and kosher meals. And we know that when the cafeteria lunch is free, more students opt to eat it. That potentially increases the number of kids who could grow up to be adults who eat more sustainably because a flexitarian meal choice was available to them.
The challenges for schools thinking of taking up vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian menus don’t stop there. Making these meals truly sustainable requires more than switching up which days meat is served. A study in Global Environmental Change highlights the massive impact that cutting meat consumption can offer; it found that if the entire U.S. participated in a meatless day each week, greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 22 percent. Imagine what that means for even a portion of the country regularly participating in meat-free days.
If that’s not reason enough to switch kids to healthier meal choices, the Brookings Institute studied how the quality of school lunches impacted cognitive development and function for students. Looking at standardized test scores, students served a healthier lunch prepared by a private outside company saw a 4 percent increase in their test scores. Students who qualified for a free or reduced lunch improved their scores by 40 percent.
Finally, there’s the question of their health. The consumption of too much meat, dairy, and highly processed foods, are a factor in nationwide increases in diabetes, chronic illness including heart disease and high cholesterol, obesity, and the rising cost of healthcare.
“The earlier in life that we can establish healthful eating habits, the better,” says Eugenia Gianos, MD and Director of Cardiovascular Prevention for Northwell Health and Director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital. She added her applause to the NYC Department of Eduction’s vegan Friday program, which she calls a positive step. “I see our young people struggle with overweight, obesity, and even diabetes at younger and younger ages. Research shows that plant-based diets help people achieve a healthy weight.”
A study on plant-based diets aimed at physicians in The Permanente Journal found taking up a plant-based or even partly-plant-based diet can address all of these. It further suggests encouraging doctors to move away from language like “vegan” or “vegetarian” and instead talk about consuming healthy, whole, plant-based foods while minimizing eating meat, dairy, and eggs. That’s a move that’s right on trend with what a lot of people want: a Gallup poll from 2020 found that one in four Americans are working on eating less meat, and most cite their health as the reason for making that choice. Plant-based food products are also a growing business, with McDonald’s and Burger King getting into the Impossible and Beyond Meat game and making a killing. The Good Food Institute values it as a $7 billion market in which grocery store sales of plant-based foods that replaced animal products grew 27 percent in 2021.
While NYC Vegan Fridays are not a perfect experience, with different schools clearly serving wildly different meals to meet the new requirements—some of which did not pass the muster of students or parents—it is an idea worth encouraging. When done right, it can improve the health, learning ability, and eating habits we’re teaching to children. When done as a conversation with kids about what meals they enjoy, it can change the trajectory of how they eat for life.