Happy Earth Day! - Be Plant Positive!

Making the Healthy Choice by Default

4 March 2024

This past Friday, I was on a zoom meeting with my local state Senator to talk about S996, a bill that would require public schools to offer plant-based food options in food service.  It sounded like a no-brainer to me, but once we got into the nitty gritty - and Senator Mayer is highly supportive of healthy school lunches - we understood that this bill would not even make it out of committee to the full Senate without some changes.

For one, nobody likes to be TOLD what they HAVE to do.  With our New York schools already operating on a tight budget, alarm bells will go off. Do they have the manpower?  Will it cost more? Will students refuse to eat it? For this, we have plenty of data to show that: no, it will not cost more, and yes, students generally love it. Analysis from a two-year study in Oakland found that the school district saved $42,000 by reducing their meat purchases. 68% of California schools are serving plant-based options in schools and data suggests growing demand.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food, founded in New York, has been working for two decades to improve the quality of meals for our youngest citizens. We know that eating habits developed during childhood tend to track into adulthood (food manufacturers know this too - thus all the character-branded junk food). It just makes sense to give kids the best possible start (and those from food insecure households are getting most of their calories from school meals).

The second objection was about who gets these meals. Requiring a special request for such meals limits the inclusion power of it. We know that Black Americans are vegan at more than twice the rate of whites and many minority groups suffer an intolerance to dairy. On this issue, I wholeheartedly agree: vegan options should be available to everyone, every day. Serve it and they will come (it has to be seen and offered to be considered). Plus, of course, a child's food preferences might change daily.

Unpopular opinion: we need to make the plant-based option the default. Hey, they've done it in NYC Health + Hospitals and it seems to be a resounding success (most patients choose the plant-based option, and culturally appropriate meals have yielded a 95% satisfaction rate). Keep the choice, but with a nudge.

So I guess the question remains… do we use the carrot (pun intended) or the stick? As more schools adopt plant forward menus (NYC currently promotes Meatless Mondays and Plant Forward Fridays), the carrot becomes easier - we have examples to draw upon so it's not as scary - but still many school districts will remain stuck in current patterns (here, I'll add that the USDA does not help the matter, calling plant-based protein “meat alternates” and requiring dairy milk to be served with all school meals, but more on that next week).

I'm inspired by a podcast I heard yesterday, “I am Human” with Dr. Yami (of Veggie Doctor Radio fame). She said it many times:

Discomfort is a catalyst for growth!

Plant-based options can be cheaper to source and quicker to cook than meat. They may expand a child's palate, especially poor youth who rely heavily on fast food outside of school time. They improve inclusivity, catering to many cultures, religions, food intolerances and allergies. Whole food plant-based options are higher in fiber (95% of Americans are deficient), more diverse in nutrients and lower in saturated fat than their meat counterparts.

With all these factors, the benefits are clear. Do you think we need to make it a law or stick (no pun intended) to encouraging school districts to tolerate the discomfort of change?  What “carrot” would help you to move toward a plant-based diet?

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