Hundreds of school districts have started offering plant-based alternatives in recent months — what’s behind the shift, and what do these meals look like?
Just five years ago, the U.S. school lunch landscape was still pretty stuck in its traditional, meat-forward past — think burgers, chicken tenders, pepperoni pizza. Dominic Machi, who spent decades as director of food nutrition services at the Mount Diablo School District in northern California, said the notion of serving plant-based meals was, at best, a blip on the radar. At worst, it was something actively resisted by parents and school staff.
“I remember we tried serving some vegan chicken nuggets and the kids loved them, said they were better than McDonald’s,” Machi said. “But we had some workers who refused to serve [the nuggets] because they were nervous, weren’t sure what was in them, if it was safe or healthy for the kids.”
Now it’s 2023, and the memory feels distant, quaint even. In the U.S., the retail market for plant-based foods has topped $8 billion and continues to grow annually. Meat alternatives are ubiquitous at Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s — McDonald’s even launched a line of “McPlant” offerings. And hundreds of school districts across the country are now offering a range of vegan and vegetarian entrees, once unheard of in the staid confines of public school meals.
“We’ve seen a lot of cultural shifts, and I think that’s the driving force,” said Machi, who launched a bakery called Dos Pisano’s this year, focused on providing vegan and vegetarian options to schools. “We have millennials that are parents now, with a whole different set of priorities than their parents had for them,” he said.
Reports also indicate that even moderate shifts in meat consumption can have significant climate impacts. Machi added, “[Today’s students] are more environmentally conscious, they’re more health-conscious. We also have a huge influx in the United States of students from Asia and other parts of the world, who were raised in cultures that don’t allow meat.”
Kristie Middleton, who spent years in sometimes-frustrating school nutrition advocacy work before joining plant-based company Rebellyous Foods, is amazed by the rapid cultural shifts she‘s witnessed. For instance, Middleton recently attended a state meeting of the Indiana School Nutrition Association.
“I was an exhibitor at the show, and was really impressed by the number of people stopping by the booth, willing to try our products — a few years ago, that never would have happened,” said Middleton, Rebellyous’ vice president of business development. “This is Indiana, a state with a lot of traditional farming, a big dairy state, but we didn’t hit any resistance. These days I don’t even have to do a lengthy pitch on why plant-based makes sense; most people are very familiar!”
To satisfy the burgeoning school district demand, plant-based companies like Rebellyous, Dos Pisano’s, and Better Chew have been muscling into the market. Seattle-based Rebellyous in particular has pursued an ambitious path to the institutional foods space, pitching their products to schools, hospitals, corporate cafeterias, and military bases; their plant-based chicken alternatives are now served in 202 school districts around the country.
“We have millennials that are parents now, with a whole different set of priorities than their parents had for them.”
In the popular imagination, vegan school lunch may seem like the exclusive provenance of big cities like New York, where Meatless Mondays were enacted in 2019, or progressive bastions like Berkeley and Boulder. And while communities like these may have been early embracers of plant-based school food, the tide appears to have shifted significantly in much of the country.
Nora Stewart, who works on California school food initiatives with the advocacy organization Friends of the Earth (FOE), believes a lot of the momentum and increased demand for plant-based options is student-driven. Gen Z has received much attention for its vegan leanings; these trends appear to be shifting younger and younger. “School districts are really trying to feed the students that they serve,” said Stewart. “There’s been just a tremendous interest from students for more plant-based options. So I think [districts] are trying to meet that need, as well as address the growing interest around the climate impacts of plant-based options, and the health benefits as well.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), long the arbiter of acceptable school nutrition, has been shifting its dietary requirements, with an eye toward serving more of both culturally appropriate and vegetarian items. Frank Castro, director of child nutrition services for California’s Dublin School District, said roughly 60 percent of his district is Asian (including a significant Indian population); he thinks districts like his helped USDA broaden their approach to acceptable school meals.
“A lot of the kids here are very menu-savvy,” Castro said. “You know, more vegetarian, more vegetables and fruits, more things made from scratch. We’ve been able to experiment more with that here, where maybe some of the other districts didn’t.”
Castro hits on a distinction between his district and many others — the ability to cook from scratch. Lacking full kitchen setups, but with a need to serve hundreds of students each day, many schools are looking for simple heat-and-serve options. That’s where Rebellyous has been able to thrive: The company’s plant-based “chicken” nuggets and tenders are peak simplicity. Rebellyous CEO Christie Lagally said students rate them highly in side-by-side nugget taste tests.
But despite positive feedback from kids, there are other boxes to check before a product can be served in schools, like does it contain enough protein to be considered an entree, and does it meet the district’s budgetary needs — often under $2 per meal. Lagally said that many of the buzzier meat alternatives — think Impossible or Beyond Meats — actually have a higher price point than real meat.
“These days I don’t even have to do a lengthy pitch on why plant-based makes sense; most people are very familiar!”
“If you’re familiar with plant-based meat, about 90 percent is made in meat processing facilities using meat processing equipment,” she said. “So all that wonderful equipment that we designed for processing animals, is also being used to process plant-based meat, much to its detriment. When you use off-the-shelf meat processing equipment to make plant-based meat, you end up with having to use the equipment for three times as long, three times as much labor.”
Additionally, companies like Impossible have taken heat for being highly processed, containing too many additives, and essentially for being just as unhealthy — if not worse — than their meaty counterparts.
Lagally said her team, largely engineers, built production equipment from scratch, specifically tailored to produce soy-based chicken. The goal was efficiency and consistency, and though the company doesn’t employ official chefs or culinary advisors, Lagally said their sales are the best proof of a quality product.
Conversely, some advocates would prefer if foods with less processing and more sustainable ingredients could find a foothold in school lunches. Rebellyous also uses traditionally farmed soy as its main ingredient, a global commodity with its own climate issues.
“Rather than promote the fake meat meals, we generally encourage schools to incorporate entrees that use whole, plant-based ingredients in their menus.”
“Our position is that, rather than promote the fake meat meals, we generally encourage schools to incorporate entrees that use whole, plant-based ingredients — which is beans, lentils, and tofu — in their menus,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at FOE. “Don’t get me wrong: We don’t oppose [processed meat substitutes]. We understand that there’s a role for easy-serve items for school districts that don’t have scratch cooking facilities. But we definitely … want to help get school districts more support and funding to provide whole plant-based meals to their students.”
Hamerschlag and others interviewed noted that the flood of federal funding to provide universal school lunch during Covid was certainly a factor in encouraging district experimentation and broader menu options. Some states have followed up with funding of their own to keep the pandemic menu expansions going. California in particular has received accolades for allotting $100 million toward promoting plant-based and sustainable food options in its schools.
Despite all the momentum, Hamerschlag and her colleagues feel like there’s still a lot of work to be done. Plenty of school districts are getting pushback for a lack of vegan options (see this op-ed from a Maryland high school student); the fight to include plant-based dairy alternatives is just beginning; a large portion of school lunches still incorporate highly processed meat products; and USDA’s nutrition guidelines haven’t fully caught up with the plant-forward future.
“Take tofu, for instance. [USDA] requires that you have to offer 4.4 ounces of tofu to qualify as an alternate protein source, which is just a very large portion. You can serve a much smaller portion of chicken to meet that requirement, so that’s what a lot of school districts are going to do,” Hamerschlag said. “And that’s just one example, maybe a result of meat industry lobbying, maybe just outdated guidelines. But USDA is still taking comments on its proposed nutrition updates, and we’ve already had a lot of luck in achieving our goals. We’re hopeful.”