We send our children off to school, hoping they are well taken care of and in good hands. They can have the best teachers, which is comforting, but what about the food that our schools are serving our children? As a vegetarian or vegan parent, it’s a scary thought, isn’t it? I am not surprised when I hear most parents of vegetarian and vegan children send their children to school with homemade lunches. After all, that is the only way they can eat a nutritious, plant-based meal at school, right?
The answer is probably yes in most schools on most days, but it would be helpful for you to learn more about the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) involvement in our children’s school lunches. The most prominent USDA school lunch program is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Let’s learn a little bit more about the NSLP so that when you do not have the time to make a lunch, you know what your child may be served.*
The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program for public schools, non-profit private schools, and residential child care institutions. It provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. The program is administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service agency of the USDA. At the state level, the NSLP is usually administered by state education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.
School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the NSLP get cash subsidies and USDA foods (“entitlement” foods) from the USDA for each meal they serve. In exchange, the schools must serve lunches that meet federal requirements and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. The nutritional requirements are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Although certain standards must be met, decisions about what specific foods to serve, and how they are prepared, are made by local school food authorities.
The big question is: does the NSLP provide adequate vegetarian and vegan options for children? The USDA has approved plant protein products as meat alternatives, including nut and seed butters, cooked beans and peas, and soy protein foods that meet the USDA requirements for alternative protein products (i.e. veggie burgers). In 2012, the USDA issued a memo acknowledging that commercially prepared tofu is now an acceptable meat alternate in the NSLP. The memo specified that meat substitute products made from tofu, such as tofu sausages, which are easily recognizable as such can be credited as well. However, products made with tofu that are not easily recognized as meat substitutes would not contribute to any component of the reimbursable meal and do not meet the customary and usual function of the meat/meat alternate component. For example, you cannot blend soft tofu in a soup, making the tofu unrecognizable, or make tofu noodles, which do not represent a meat substitute, and consider the tofu a meat alternate. In addition to tofu, the memo also noted that soy yogurt is now creditable as a meat alternate. Thus, there are some vegetarian and vegan options available, but that does not mean that schools serve them every day.
Interestingly enough, unlike the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which specifically mentions the serving of soy milk to children, the NSLP only lists lactose-free milk as an acceptable option. There is no specific mention of soy or other non-dairy milks. Unfortunately, lactose-free doesn’t necessarily mean dairy-free.
There is no law or USDA regulation that requires schools to offer a vegetarian or vegan meal every day, so what can you do to encourage your child’s school to increase the amount of vegetarian and vegan options they serve? Whether the school is involved with the NSLP or not, you can make an appointment with the school food service director and discuss your child’s desire for more vegetarian and vegan options. The other option is to get involved in the PTA or another school committee that discusses school lunch options. Sometimes, it is easier and more effective to work with other parents to encourage the school to expand their offerings. There may also be local community organizations that would be willing to help you (i.e. the New York Coalition for Healthy School Foods).
What about making bigger waves and trying to improve the NSLP and other USDA programs for school-aged children? The best way to do this is to get in touch with your local congressional representatives and encourage them to improve school nutrition regulations. If there is a piece of legislation being considered that addresses school lunch programs, make sure to contact your representative(s) and express your opinions and make your voice heard.
When it comes to school lunches, I am happy to report that times are slowly changing. There are now two public schools in New York City that only serve vegetarian meals. And, recently, James Cameron (yes, the Titanic director) announced that the school his wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, opened (The MUSE School in California) will be an all-vegan school. In addition, NYC is going to have an all-vegan school opening in 2016 called the Solutionary School. Even though these schools constitute just a mere fraction of a fraction of schools in America, it is encouraging to see schools realizing the importance of serving vegetarian and vegan options every day. Let’s hope the number of schools doing so continues to rise and us vegetarian and vegan parents don’t have to fight so hard to ensure our children are being served nutritious and plant-based meals at school.
*Not all schools participate in the NSLP, so check with your school administration to determine if your child’s school is part of the NSLP.
Disclaimer: Although Ashlee K. Cartwright, Esq. is a licensed attorney, the content contained in this column is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice. Please understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the columnist and/or website publisher. If you have a question about a specific or personal legal matter, please contact a local licensed attorney.