My involvement with advocating plant-based meals in the school lunch program began with my grandchildren, since they are growing up in a vegan household. Where we live in upstate NY, it’s very difficult for them to enjoy a plant-based meal at school, unless they bring it from home, because here, even the meat-free options may contain dairy and/or eggs.
In searching the internet for ideas, I discovered CHOICE (Citizens for Healthy Options In Children’s Education), which was started by FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement) to encourage grassroots efforts at the state level. CHOICE was instrumental in developing successful legislative resolutions that have passed in Hawaii, California New York and Florida. I was fortunate to be part of the team that initiated the New York State Coalition for Healthy School Food, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for healthy plant-based foods, comprehensive nutrition policy, and education as well as the elimination of unhealthy competitive foods in all areas of the school. Both CHOICE and the New York State Coalition are excellent resources for anyone interested in helping to move this important work forward in their own communities.
I learned about the nutritional and health benefits of plant-based eating, and I scheduled appointments with local schools, meeting with teachers in an effort to spread the word and develop local support. I also made an appointment with the food services director to discuss how we might incorporate more plant-based foods into the cafeteria program.
The parent-teacher meetings were long and unfruitful, and school food service is a business that’s run on a tight budget within carefully defined parameters set by the government.
While they were respectful and listened to my presentation, not much has changed over the years, and my grandson still brings his lunch from home. Still, attending those meetings did give me an eye-opening perspective on just how entrenched local schools are, right down to promoting dairy products through ice cream socials and candy fundraisers.
When speaking with managers of school food service, I heard concerns over cost controls, citing the fact that the USDA subsidizes the meat and dairy industries through available commodities. I have to remind myself that change takes time, and schools are part of huge bureaucratic systems.
While it’s discouraging to note that locally, schools are continuing to do the same as always, I’m also encouraged to learn that some schools across the country are making positive changes, offering more fruits and vegetables, supporting local farmer’s markets and even introducing plant-based protein alternatives like soy.
My greatest successes have come about through interacting directly with students. I have been invited into schools to do presentations during their annual wellness day programs as well as being a guest speaker for an impromptu talk on vegetarianism in elementary and secondary schools as well as college campuses. There, I share information about diet, health and environmental considerations and provide literature, recipes and vegan samples such as smoothies, soups, salads and desserts.
These presentations are always met with curiosity and enthusiasm. They are excellent opportunities to share information, answer questions and dispel myths. I highly recommend anyone interested in getting out the vegan message consider offering your time and talent to conduct such events. Because even if you can’t reach teachers, who are busy with curriculum, or food service staff, who may be overworked and underfunded, if you can reach children and encourage them in their decision to eat healthy, you have won the battle.