Schools in Illinois serve vegan meals to 2 million students

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“Do you have milk?” is a slogan that American students start with in elementary school. For decades, meat- and dairy-centric dishes overshadowed plant-based foods in cafeterias nationwide, but now Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has signed into law a new bill mandating plant-based school meals nationwide. The new legislation will ensure the entire Illinois public school district — with 1,887,316 children enrolled as of 2021 — will offer plant-based meals to its students.

The new law (House Bill 4089) will set a precedent for school districts across the United States. The legislation, sponsored by Chicago State Representative Cyril Nichols and Peoria State Senator Dave Koehler, hopes to ensure students receive healthy and affordable meals.

“Whether a student’s dietary needs are for religious, health or other personal reasons, offering a plant-based meal would meet a variety of needs,” Koehler said in a statement. “Offering a second option for a healthy lunch in our schools is an all-round win.”

Legislation requires all Illinois schools to provide plant-based meals that meet state dietary regulations. The law will also include new meal options that cater to Muslim students who follow halal diet laws.

“Well-rounded, nutritious meals of all kinds are critical to students’ ability to learn and succeed,” said Nichols, house sponsor of the legislation. “Offering healthier lunch options in our schools helps our students thrive.”

Currently, the federal school lunch program does not subsidize meals that exclude milk. Federal regulations state that participating counties and food providers “must not discriminate against drinking cow’s milk before school, after school, on school property, or at a school-sponsored event.” Now state governments, including Illinois, are addressing those standards as the new law is scheduled to go into effect on August 1, 2023.

Vegan Meal Programs in the United States

Illinois’ new legislation joins several other campaigns and movements to provide students with nutritious and sustainable plant-based meals. A recent study found that vegetarian children are just as healthy as meat eaters, debunking decades-old myths that plant-based foods lack the necessary nutrition for schoolchildren.

In New York City, plant-based Mayor Eric Adams has launched a dining program that provides affordable plant-based meals to every one million college students. The Vegan Fridays project introduced plant-based meals like Mediterranean pasta, black beans, plantain rice bowls, veggie tacos, and other offerings to every New York public school. The initiative aims to bring plant-based education and nutritious meals to underserved communities across the city.

Some companies have also started to enter the educational catering sector. Recently, foodservice giant Sodexo partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to offer more plant-based foods to college students. To increase its plant-based meal offering by 42 percent by 2025, the major food company is rolling out specialized plant-based offerings nationwide for its university partners.

Plant-based school meals in Brazil

In April this year, the Municipality of Brazil in Salvador partnered with Humane Society International and Conscious Eating Brazil to deliver 10 million sustainable meals to schoolchildren annually. The city’s school system provides 170,000 meals a day, and these plans call for providing tasty, nutritious, plant-based meals year-round. The government also announced that these new menus will respond to students’ special needs and family food traditions.

The organization announced that the meal program will help save 75,000 tons of CO2 emissions, save 400 million liters of water and save 16,000 hectares of forest from deforestation. The food program also coincides with a major boom in vegans and vegetarians across Brazil, with nearly 14 percent of Brazilians claiming to be vegans or vegetarians.

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