Earlier this month, more than a dozen high school and college students took to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to lobby Congress for policies that would support access to more healthy and climate-friendly school meals, which they believe should include not just plant-based milk alternatives but plant-based entrees and sides that offer more variety and nutrient density than the current limited vegetarian and vegan options offered at many schools. They also want culturally appropriate options that reflect their religious beliefs, what they eat at home and take into consideration allergens and food intolerances.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, two students and members of Youth Steering Committee for the Healthy Future Students and Planet Coalition share why they are passionate about increasing plant-based school meal options and their experience meeting with members of Congress in Washington, DC, on July 17, where they advocated for the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act and argued against the Whole Milk for Health Kids Act, which is moving in the House. They also shared how they would like to see more plant-based options made available through the USDA Foods Program via the Farm Bill and updates to the school meal patters to facilitate plant-forward menus. Finally, they share where they see room for plant-based innovation and ongoing demand for alternative proteins despite headwinds calling into question the category’s longer term business potential.
Students seek nutrient-dense, culturally-appropriate and allergen-free options
Maya Miller, an 18-year-old rising freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ananya Kumar, a third-year student at The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, joined the Youth Steering Committee for the Healthy Future Students and Planet Coalition after becoming frustrated by the limited quality and selection of food served at their school and learning about the limitations constricting the school meal program as well as the environmental impact of those choices.
Kumar explains her top priority and reason for joining the steering committing is to improve the nutritional value and selection of food for students, including her 11-year-old sister.
“I had some bad experiences with food in high school,” she explained. “I’m restricted by my religion to not have red meat, so I was basically [eating] cheese pizza or chicken nuggets or anything chicken related or a PB&J sandwich. And it just was appetizing. I really want more healthy foods … and plant-based foods too because they’re also more culturally appropriate because I wouldn’t see things from my culture being served in cafeterias because it was more Western food.”
Millar said she also wanted more options that aligned with how she ate at home and considered students’ health requirements, such as allergies and food intolerances. But she also wanted options that are healthier for the planet.
“I drink oat milk and soy milk at home and I personally don’t like diary milk, so I didn’t get it in the school cafeteria. And then I can’t even imagine for those who are lactose intolerant. They won’t even be able to consume it. So they had really no option to drink the school cafeteria because they didn’t provide any plant-based alternatives,” Miller said.
She added switching to more plant-based meals at K-12 grade schools also “would make a good impact on mitigating the climate crisis.”
Students support the Health Future Students and Earth Pilot Program
Fueled by their duel passions for nutrition and the environment, Miller and Kumar joined 12 other current and former members of the Youth Steering Committee in Washington, DC, to meet with more than 60 members of the House and Congress as well as the Executive Office of the President and the US Department of Agriculture.
Top on their list of talking points was advocating for the passage of the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act, which was introduced in late June by New York Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Jamaal Bowman.
Kumar explains the bill, if passed, would create a voluntary grant program to fund more plant-based entrees in schools by providing school staff with culinary training and technical assistance and offsetting procurement costs for plant-based protein and milk and meal prep. The legislation also would encourage partnerships with small and medium sized plant-based food businesses and student engagement, such as through taste tests and nutrition education.
“There are two main provisions. The first one … being that they just want to offer more money to the schools to be able to provide these plant-based options, and the second is having a non-dairy option be accessible to students,” she said.
She added students who currently want a non-dairy option need to have a doctor’s note showing a disability, which wouldn’t include lactose intolerance.
The students also lobbied against the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, which is sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson and would allow schools in the national school lunch program to serve whole milk and bypass dietary guidelines from the USDA which have required only fat-free and 1% milk be offered for more than a decade.
Miller argues the proposed change is unnecessary and would compromise the health of students and the planet.
“Students already have the option for dairy milk. I don’t think would need more. Plus, whole milk is higher in saturated fat than other dairy milk. So that would contribute to a higher risk of … cardiovascular disease,” she said.
She added in a meeting with Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who supported the act, the congressman explained he wanted to support small dairy farms. But Miller says this logic hurts the environment.
“The cons outweigh the pros,” she sad.
Beyond these bills, Kumar said she and other students also advocated for more plant-based options to be included in school meal patterns.
Miller added the students also advocated for changes to the Farm Bill that could reduce the country’s reliance on industrial agriculture and phase out concentrated animal feeding operations.
More plant-based options beyond the cafeteria
The dietary and food production changes both women want to see extends beyond the school cafeteria to include what is available in grocery stores and at restaurants.
Miller explains Americans need more plant-based options more broadly for positive environmental change to take place.
“As it stands, there is a lot of meat and dairy products not only in schools, but all around the United States, and I know a lot of people say it is up to the consumer to choose what to buy, but if there is more of one thing – of meat and dairy – in the stores, then that is going to a majority of what people but. So, we just need to have these plant-based options available for people,” she said.
Kumar added increased selection should include both more plant-based proteins that mimic animal counter-parts but also options that let fruits and vegetables shine for what they are.
“Meat alternatives are really helpful for people who want to transition to plant-based but have been eating meat their whole life. It makes it pretty simple just to swap out a regular burger for an Impossible burger,” she said. “But I would love to see more of those whole foods like spinach filled ravioli – count me in.”
Both women said the experience of visiting The Hill and meeting with legislative leaders was “eye-opening” and “empowering,” and that they felt like their messages were heard. What remains unclear though is the ultimate outcome – something both they and industry will no doubt watch closely in the coming months.