Priscilla Feral got her idea from two people – her granddaughter, a kindergarten student; and Eric Adams, mayor of New York.
Feral said that, as her granddaughter was getting ready to enter public school, the family saw that the cafeteria lunch menu was heavy on hot dogs, cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza.
In New York City, Mayor Adams declared that the nation’s largest school system would serve only vegan meals one day a week. Adams said his switch to a plant-based diet had helped reverse the effects of his type 2 diabetes.
Feral, president of Friends of Animals in Darien, decided that expanding on Adams’ effort to improve school lunch offerings would be good work for her international advocacy organization.
The goal is to overhaul the meat- and cheese-heavy National School Lunch Program by getting more public school cafeterias to offer vegan options every day, Feral said.
Vegan dishes contain no eggs, dairy or seafood, or anything that comes from an animal.
According to Friends of Animals, production of a vegan burger generates 90 percent less greenhouse gas than a quarter-pound of beef. It also requires significantly less energy and water, and is far less harmful to the land.
Production of beef, lamb, cheese and other animal-based products generate significantly more carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane – the greenhouse gases that trap energy and retain heat in Earth’s atmosphere, Feral said.
Schools are teaching about the climate crisis in classrooms, she said, and it makes sense to put environmental protections into practice in the cafeteria.
“We’re going to go community by community, state by state, to try to create a grassroots effort,” Feral said Wednesday. “The work will be grueling, but the rewards will be huge.”
She began in September with her granddaughter’s school district, Norwalk.
More than Meatless Monday
Schools spokeswoman Emily Morgan said the Norwalk district has had “a vegan option” on the menu for three years, and “we’ve always received positive feedback from students and parents on providing the option.”
But, after conversations between Friends of Animals and food services staff in Norwalk, and help from Norwalk Board of Education member Kara Nelson Baekey, the district will have a vegan option on the menu each day, starting next month, Feral said. Offerings will include hummus, plant-based chicken nuggets, sweet and crunchy chickpea wraps, plant-based “beef crumbles” and burgers, and a Mediterranean salad, Feral said.
“The Meatless Mondays movement started in school cafeterias years ago,” Feral said, but food served on those days was heavy with cheese, she said.
Friends of Animals is pushing for “vegan items, not vegetarian items, which contain eggs and dairy, and not just for schools to offer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as an option,” Feral said.
Norwalk “did not remove all meat and cheese products, but they are offering a vegan choice every day in elementary, middle and high schools,” Feral said. “Now Norwalk is the gold standard.”
So is Middletown, where school officials implemented the vegan idea within a few weeks, Feral said.
“Middletown was primed,” she said. “Restaurants affect the culture of a town, and Middletown has a restaurant called It’s Only Natural that’s been there for decades. They also have a vegan food truck.”
Students like vegan
Randall Mel, food and nutrition services manager for Middletown Public Schools, said Wednesday the district began incorporating vegan options on Meatless Mondays in February 2022.
“This was in an effort to begin to get student feedback and try out vegan options. We did a launch of a full vegan burger … last year, offering it daily at all schools,” Mel said.
The burger became unavailable shortly after that, so the district began offering a vegetarian version that contained eggs, Mel said. The district then found another vegan burger and last week began offering it every day at all schools, Mel said.
“We have seen a great increase in the number of students taking the vegan option,” he said.
Vegan burgers account for as much as 10 percent of meals each school day in Middletown, a central Connecticut city of 47,000. Next month the district will try offering plant-based chicken nuggets and meatless meatballs, and vegan side dishes made from a teacher’s recipes, Mel said. The menu in Middletown includes organic fruits and vegetables from local farms.
Mel said the biggest hurdle has been obtaining items that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and are available in the quantity the district needs.
The USDA administers the National School Lunch Program, which is available to 30 million U.S. schoolchildren. The agency revamped school nutrition standards 11 years ago, and is proposing more restrictions on sodium and added sugars that will be implemented in the fall of 2025.
But USDA regulations do not address processed foods, and nutritionists continue to question the standards, which allow french fries and pizza sauce to be counted as vegetables.
Taking on the USDA
Under the 1946 National School Lunch Act, schools must serve dairy milk and meet federal nutrition requirements in order to be reimbursed for meals that are free or provided at low cost to students whose family incomes fall within certain limits. Roughly one in five U.S. children is obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a disproportionate number come from low-income families.
According to Friends of Animals, the USDA food list for this school year includes 13 beef products, nine poultry products, seven ham products, and 18 cheese products.
“USDA regulations that hinder vegan, climate-friendly cafeteria food must go,” Feral said.
Friends of Animals is “cheering” Westport Public Schools, which will begin offering daily vegan options next month, Feral said, and supports Stamford, which is working toward that goal.
Kathleen Steinberg, spokeswoman for Stamford Public Schools, said Wednesday that the district’s food service provider, Chartwells, is offering “a vegan hot lunch option daily for two to three weeks each month, and a vegetarian hot lunch is offered daily for the balance of the month. There’s also a cold vegan option available on a daily basis.”
A Chartwells representative reported “that they had spoken to someone from Friends of Animals and that they are committed to providing vegan options regularly,” Steinberg said.
Feral said she is “working on four or five school districts at a time” and, depending how it goes, may consider raising a bill in the Connecticut legislature a year from now. Illinois passed a law mandating healthier school lunch menus that took effect in August, Feral said.
On the national front, Friends of Animals is poised to take legal action against the USDA. The organization is working on a petition to press the USDA to “change regulations that hinder vegan, climate-friendly cafeteria food.” If the USDA denies the petition, the group could challenge its decision in court, Feral said.
“The USDA needs reformation,” she said. “We are enthusiastic to take this on.”