New Analysis: Plant-Based Meals on the Rise in California SchoolsNew data reflects growing student demand for culturally diverse, climate-friendly food
BERKELEY, CA — As America’s kids return to school, a new report, Plant-Based Trends in California’s School Lunches, finds remarkable improvements in the frequency, quality, and variety of culturally diverse, plant-based meals featured on school menus.
“We applaud the strong commitment from school nutrition staff to meet growing student demand for climate-friendly, culturally diverse plant-based school meals,” said Nora Stewart, report co-author and Program Manager with Friends of the Earth. “We are hopeful that this trend will continue given California’s significant state policy support for improvements in the quality, sustainability, and access to plant-based school meals.”
The new report is based on a detailed analysis comparing 2019 and 2022 school lunch entrées served at the 25 largest school districts across the state, collectively representing 1.83 million students and 121 million lunches served annually.
Key Findings include:
- 68% of districts are providing plant-based options daily or weekly, a 54% increase since 2019.
- The number of plant-based entrees overall increased by 16%, yet they still account for only 8% of all entrées offered.
- Districts are serving higher quality, whole plant-based entrees, such as teriyaki tofu, vegan tamales and chana masala, and vegetable lo-mien.
- Processed meat entrees account for nearly one-fifth (18%) of all entrées offered, an increase of 11% since 2019.
- More the half (57%) of all offerings on school menus contain cheese, and some of these are highly processed and include meat (e.g., pepperoni pizza).
The report highlights school districts such as Santa Ana Unified in the greater Los Angeles region that are implementing innovative plant-based entrees that reflect students’ cultural, philosophical, religious, and health preferences, with support from non-profit organizations like Friends of the Earth. For example, Santa Ana USD recently launched a Plant-Based Wednesday Initiative with a focus on Latin American recipes such as horchata overnight oats, lentil picadillo, and tofu and potato empanadas. “Student response has been extremely positive,” shares Josh Goddard, Director of Nutrition Services at Santa Ana Unified School District. “Students who follow a plant-based diet have expressed feelings of inclusion and support, while students who follow a flexitarian diet have shared a growing appreciation for being introduced to more plant-centric options.”
Despite major advancements, Friends of the Earth’s analysis reveals a lingering presence of unhealthy, greenhouse-gas intensive processed meat and outlines key policy recommendations to improve healthfulness and reduce the carbon footprint of school meals. The report finds top entrees served in schools still include unhealthy foods, including pepperoni pizza, deli meat sandwiches and cheeseburgers – entrees that contain ultra-processed, carbon-intensive meat and dairy that fail to align with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and leading public health recommendations.
This pattern is reflected in the USDA Foods program, which provides select commodities to school districts at a reduced (subsidized) cost. According to the report, plant-based proteins make up only 2.5% of USDA Foods’ school purchases statewide. Many plant-based protein offerings including edamame, tofu and tempeh are not available through the USDA Foods program. In contrast, beef, which is at least 20 times more carbon intensive than plant-based proteins, accounts for almost a quarter (23%) of USDA Foods spending.
“The federal USDA Foods Program fails to align with the U.S Dietary Guidelines that encourage greater consumption of plant-based proteins and fiber,” said Kari Hamerschalg, Deputy Director of Food and Agriculture at Friends of the Earth, “It is time for USDA to provide more low-cost, culturally appropriate, fiber-rich, plant-based proteins that schools nutrition teams and students deserve.”
The report highlights the growing prospects for greater progress on plant-based foods in light of new California state funding for a slate of initiatives including the School Food Best Practices Fund which provides $100 million for school district purchases of high-quality plant-based offerings, along with locally grown, minimally processed and sustainably grown food. However, the report points to needed policy change at the federal level, particularly including more plant-based proteins into the USDA Foods program.
“Students and staff are excited when they find out the new menu additions are vegan,” said Ksenia Glenn, Nutrition Service Director of Upland Unified School District in San Bernardino County, CA who recently added plant-based offerings including a veggie fiesta bowl. “It sparks a conversation about the important role food choices can play in protecting the climate.”
Expert contact: Nora Stewart, [email protected], 720-382-8708
Communications contact: Shaye (Kerry) Skiff, [email protected], 202-222-0723