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Growing Awareness During National Vegetarian Month

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

by: Marge Robison, MPH, RDN, LD

National Vegetarian Awareness Month gives us pause to reflect on how we meet the needs of this ever-growing population of consumers in our cafeteria spaces.

Vegetarian diets are becoming increasingly popular among youth.

Reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet are varied and include potential health benefits, sociopolitical, ecologic, and ethical issues related to animal rights. A 2021 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group indicated that approximately 5% of youth from 8 to 17 years old describe themselves as vegetarian and 2% as vegan. That’s no ‘hill of beans’ (vegetarian pun intended)! Taking those statistics and translating them into numbers of potential vegetarian customers in school cafeterias highlights that this is a significant group of consumers. Additionally, there are always students who, while they may not identify as a vegetarian, their food preferences lean towards such offerings. We are also seeing an increasing number of our littlest eaters in our early childhood programs in which parents' preferences are for their children to be served a vegetarian diet.

While schools must meet the USDA’s National School Lunch Program nutrition standards, it does allow for vegetarian options to be offered. Schools are required to offer daily choices from all 5 food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat or meat alternatives. The USDA recognizes plant sources of protein as meat alternatives, including nuts and seed butters, cooked beans and peas, and soy protein foods that meet USDA requirements. More school districts across the country are seeking opportunities to offer more plant-based options.

  • New York City gives more than 930,000 children in the NYC public school system access to a nutritious plant-based dish as the primary menu item every Friday with its Plant Powered Fridays program

  • Illinois recently passed a law that went into effect on August 1, 2023, that requires school districts to provide a plant-based school lunch option to students who submit a prior request to the district.

  • In California, the 2022-23 state budget included $100 million to support districts in providing plant-based or restricted diet meals.

Recipes and resources to support school districts in offering more vegetarian meals are routinely being developed.

We encourage schools to think past the PB&J, mac-n-cheese, and cheese pizza as their vegetarian options and think more creatively with recipes like Chickpea Masala, Vegetarian Chili, Fiesta Bean Taco Bowl, Lentil Pasta with Marinara Sauce, and more!! Committing to offering more plant-based options is the first, and most important, step. Then, perhaps it’s modifying a current traditional menu item into a non-animal protein version. Hmmm…maybe beans could be used in that recipe, rather than the diced chicken?? Make it and taste it! Taste-testing new items with students allows them to try items that may be unfamiliar to them and is a great way to get recipe feedback.

So, as we honor National Vegetarian Awareness Month this spotlight might be the fuel that leads to the first steps in a commitment towards offering more plant-based meals at schools.

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