Students at some schools are loading their plates with fresh items from a salad bar. Others are reaching for hummus wraps. Or saying, “Yes please!” to veggie lasagna.
Plenty of school lunch programs across the nation and in other parts of the world are enhancing the selection of vegetarian dishes. And sometimes the students — and their families — play a key role in accomplishing the shift.
But why the shift to meat-free options? It’s not just a diet fad, although a plant-based diet is recognized as a healthy way to eat. A reduction in our consumption of meat is also better for our planet. The production of animal-based foods substantially contributes to climate change, generating twice the greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based foods.
Meatless Monday is a global initiative encouraging schools, hospitals, workplaces, and families to offer meat-free menu options. A Meatless Monday menu doesn’t necessarily need to be exclusively vegetarian, according to Ron Hernandez, managing director for The Monday Campaigns, with which Meatless Monday is affiliated. The idea is to include, add, and highlight scrumptious plant-forward dishes for those who want them.
Hundreds of schools across the nation incorporate Meatless Monday programs in their lunch rooms, including all public schools in New York City, where Meatless Monday menus are exclusively vegetarian. When announcing the district-wide program in 2019, former mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, mentioned a particular elementary school where students had already voted to add Meatless Monday to their lunch routine.
“We have to listen to what we are being told by the generation coming up,” de Blasio said. He also mentioned the nutritional and environmental value of plant-based foods. “This is something we do that’s another contribution to addressing global warming.”
Meatless for the Planet
While youngsters may not necessarily be interested in nutritional facts, many appreciate knowing that what they eat is good for the environment. Plant-based foods have a lower carbon and water footprint than animal-based foods.
“Research shows that healthy, protein-rich plant-based foods like lentils and beans are 26 to 34 times less carbon-intensive than beef,” according to the Friends of the Earth. “If every California public school switched from a beef burger to a plant-based burger just once a month, it would save 300 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually.”
More reasons why reducing our consumption of animal-based foods is better for the planet:
- Livestock production produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Livestock production uses almost 80% of the Earth’s agricultural land.
- Producing one quarter-pound beef burger uses about 450 gallons of water.
Pitching Your Idea
For parents who want to encourage plant-focused dishes in school cafeterias, their tips include:
- Team up with like-minded parents and faculty when organizing and presenting your proposal.
- Study the nutritional, health, and environmental advantages of plant-based foods, and use that information in your proposal.
- Make an appointment with school decision-makers, preferably the food service director, or perhaps the principal. Or send an email. Find examples of letters in How To Get Meatless Monday Going in Your K-12 School from Meatless Monday and the School Lunch Toolkit for Change from Friends of the Earth.
- Organize a tasting party showcasing a selection of yummy meatless dishes. Allow participants to vote on their favorites.
Friends of the Earth offers additional ideas in Scaling Up Healthy Climate-Friendly School Food. “Our report shows that climate-friendly food service is not only feasible, but can also boost student participation and community appreciation of school food,” the report states.
Enticing, Appealing, & Fun
Involving students in the process of adding more meat-free options to school cafeteria options can be fun and educational, and helps generate a sense of responsibility. With strong leadership, valuable partners, and other support, “foodservice leaders are showing that changing school food to improve kids’ health and protect the environment is not only feasible, but can actually help boost student participation and community appreciation of school food,” according to Scaling Up Healthy Climate-Friendly School Food from Friends of the Earth.
Other tips and ideas from Meatless Monday, Friends of the Earth, and Healthy Kids Happy Planet:
- When writing menu items, focus on the flavorful food, not the nutritional value or the “vegetarian” label. Students may think food with a “vegetarian” label is only for vegetarians, and many youngsters aren’t particularly interested if food is healthy. They want to know it’s delicious, says Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the food and agriculture program for Friends of the Earth. The Meatless Monday folks agree with the idea of emphasizing the food and how it tastes. Instead of “steamed asparagus,” the Meatless Monday website suggests, use “savory garlic asparagus with ginger glaze.”
- Encourage students to participate in selecting menu items. Organize tasting events, and let students vote on their favorite foods. “Everyone gets excited about our taste-testing. It’s new, exciting, and they get a say in it, so they get to participate in the decision-making,” according to a school official from Missouri quoted on the Friends of the Earth website.
- Some schools ask students to submit their own plant-based recipes, and the winning dishes are served on the lunch menu — and named after the student. Among them is eighth-grader Ava’s Avocado Salad (recipe provided below).
- Offer plant-based items in enticing formats, such as salad bars, food trucks, pop-up restaurants, and grab-and-go options. A school in Dallas offered Build Your Own Bento, in which kids picked their favorite fruits, vegetables, and proteins for their multi-compartment containers. At a school in California, staff walk around the lunchroom interacting with students, and offering samples of plant-based items.
- Some schools are including farmers in their programs. A farmer talks to the kids about the produce he grows, and then that particular fruit or vegetable is featured on the menu.
- Some schools hire professional chefs to create new recipes with beautiful presentation.
- Camille Casaretti, who was Wellness Council Chair at her kids’ elementary school in Brooklyn, used plant-based dishes for her popular The Kids Cook Monday interactive family workshops in the school cafeteria. When kids participate in preparing food and work with the ingredients, they’re more likely to try that dish, she says.
Ava’s Avocado Salad (San Diego Unified School District)
Yield: 24 servings
- 4.5 pounds chopped romaine lettuce
- 3/10 of a 5-pound bag of shredded blend cheese
- 6 cups canned pinto beans
- 6 cups canned whole kernel corn
- 3 cups chopped fresh red pepper
- 6 whole medium avocados
- 3 raw limes
- 6 cups ranch dressing
Rinse all unprocessed produce with cold water. Drain well in colander. Rinse and drain beans and corn. Cut red pepper into 1/2-inch pieces. Slice each lime into 8 wedges. Cut avocado into 8 wedges. Gently toss avocados in a 1 part lemon juice to 4 parts water mixture.
Place 3 ounces (2 cups) of lettuce into container. On top of the lettuce, arrange items in rows, left to right, 1 ounce cheese, 1/4 cup pinto beans, 1/4 cup corn, 1/8 cup red pepper, 2 slices of avocado, and 1 lime wedge. Portion ranch dressing into 2-ounce souffle cup and place in upper right-hand corner of container. Refrigerate until serving.
Vegan Taco Salad (Capistrano Unified School District)
- 1 Edibowl (edible bowl baked with wheat flour)
- 1 cup iceberg lettuce chopped
- 1 cup spinach
- 1 tablespoon black beans
- 1 tablespoon yellow corn
- 2 ounces plant-based Italian sausage
- 1 tablespoon of pico de gallo
Assemble lettuce and spinach in Edibowl. Scoop 2 ounces of vegan meat and top with black beans and yellow corn. Garnish with pico de gallo.
More Planet-Friendly Recipes
Editor’s Note: Originally published on September 3, 2019, this article was updated in October 2023.