WASHINGTON—School cafeterias across the country may soon serve more fruits, vegetables, and healthy plant-based meals. A new bill in Congress would reward school districts for offering plant-based vegetarian options and healthful nondairy beverages. Making healthier options available would help schools fight obesity, comply with federal nutrition standards, and meet all children’s dietary needs, say doctors and dietitians with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).
The Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, H.R. 4870—which will be introduced this week by Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado—would reward school districts with additional food aid if they offer most students plant-based vegetarian food choices every day. The bill, which has already drawn support from Rep. John Conyers and 30 other co-sponsors, would create a pilot program to provide select schools with high-fiber, low-fat vegetarian protein products and nondairy milk options.
"Schools want to serve healthy meals, but they need help from Congress," says PCRM nutritionist Kathryn Strong, R.D. "The Healthy School Meals Act would give school cafeterias the power to offer more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat plant-based options. All students, including those who are vegetarian or lactose-intolerant, deserve healthful options in the lunch line."
Even students who choose a plant-based vegetarian meal option once a week could reap important benefits. A veggie burger, for example, has the same amount of protein as a hamburger. But while the hamburger has 15 grams of fat, the veggie burger has only 5, and it contains no saturated fat, no cholesterol, fewer calories, and more fiber.
Congress will soon take up reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act, which helps shape the school breakfasts and lunches served to 30 million children. More than 70 percent of schools serve meals too high in saturated fat to comply with federal dietary guidelines, according to the government's own School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study. About 86 percent of school districts do not offer alternatives to dairy milk.
The proposals in the Healthy School Meals Act have drawn support from school food service directors. Gary Petill, director of food services for San Diego Unified in California, says his district struggles to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. "We need strong federal programs that make it easier for schools to provide options for plant-based meals," Petill wrote in a letter to Congress. "This would encourage healthful eating patterns that are high in fiber, low in fat, and virtually cholesterol free."
Vegetarian school lunch options are also supported by the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and celebrity parents such as Tobey Maguire and basketball star John Salley.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.