California Becomes The First U.S. State To Provide Public Funding For Plant-Based Meals In Schools From Grade K-12

Late last month, the California Legislature adopted a $300 billion dollar budget that includes historic investments in the state’s school meal program to expand healthy, plant-based meal options. These investments include:

  • $100 million to support schools in procuring plant-based foods, as well as sustainably produced foods, California-grown foods, and foods to accommodate students with religious or other restricted diets.

  • $600 million to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure and to train and compensate foodservice workers, including how to prepare plant-based meals and increase scratch-cooking, an important facilitator for expanding healthy, plant-forward menus.

With this budget, California becomes the first state to provide public funding for plant-based school meals. Despite immense progress from many California school districts and growing demand for plant-based meals among students and families, most of the state’s schools lack these options. A 2021 Friends of the Earth analysis found that only 4% of entrée options available in California’s schools were plant-based, with half of those being nut butter and jelly.

This funding follows a years-long effort led by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys) to create a new program to provide state funding to reimburse K-12 public schools for the costs of expanding their plant-based food and beverage offerings. The program is supported by dozens of school districts, student and parent organizations, and environmental, health, and animal welfare groups.

“Many school districts across our state have a sizable student population that requires or wants plant-based or restricted diet options and cannot afford the sometimes-higher prices. This year’s budget is a sizable step towards empowering schools to respond to their students’ needs,” said Assemblymember Nazarian in a statement.

The new program also signifies the passage of AB 558, School Meals: The Child Nutrition Act of 2022, which is cosponsored by Friends of the Earth, Social Compassion in Legislation, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition.

Research shows that healthy, protein-rich plant-based foods like lentils and beans are 26 to 34 times less carbon-intensive than beef. 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.

“California’s historic investment in plant-based school meals will reduce the carbon footprint of public school food and expand access to healthy, culturally appropriate meals for millions of children,” stated Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth. “We are enormously grateful to Assemblymembers Nazarian and Kalra, Senator Skinner, and the many other legislators who have championed a school meal program that will build a healthy and just food system for this and future generations.”

“Bringing plant-based meals to schools will help students establish healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime,” noted Neal Barnard, M.D., President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Not only do these foods help students stay focused and energized in the classroom today, but they also reduce long-term risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.”

Many school districts, including Novato, Santa Ana, San Luis Coastal, Santa Barbara, Clovis, Elk Grove, Palo Alto, San Diego, Riverside, Vacaville, Tahoe Truckee, and Capistrano are reducing the carbon footprint of their food by increasing plant-based offerings. However, as documented in Friends of the Earth’s Scaling Up Healthy, Climate-Friendly School Food report, financial and technical barriers remain for healthier, lower carbon footprint meal options.

Federal subsidies often make animal-based foods more affordable than protein-rich plant-based foods and schools continue to struggle with labor and supply chain challenges. These investments will provide critical support for the many school districts across the state that are eager to expand their healthy and delicious plant-based meal offerings.

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

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