Instead of rolling back standards, the United States should be looking for ways to cut back on unhealthful lunch-line staples like cheeseburgers, pizza, and other entrees that are loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol. Replacing these foods with healthful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans would go a long way in boosting students’ health.
These steps are especially critical at a time when one in five children have abnormal cholesterol levels, most do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and less than 1 percent eat a healthy diet—habits that are exacerbating the childhood obesity and diabetes epidemics and setting students up for future heart disease.
Increasing the availability and promotion of fruits and vegetables in the school meals that are served to tens of millions of children each day could help protect against these diseases. In fact, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that obese children who followed a plant-based diet focused on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improved their weight.
A case study my colleagues at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine conducted at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., shows just how healthy plant-based school lunch entrees are compared to standard entrees. For four months, a total of 450 students tested out six plant-based entrees—sesame tofu, three-bean chili, barbecue tofu bites, southwest veggie burgers, plant-based sloppy joes, and pasta with chickpeas.
The plant-based entrees contained triple the amount of heart-healthy fiber and more iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C, compared to standard school lunches. They also contained less total and saturated fat and no cholesterol.
Plus, students enjoyed the entrees (several of the items are still on the menu today!), and plate waste did not exceed the national school food waste average.
So rather than lowering school lunch standards, the USDA should encourage school districts to try out some of the case study’s methods—including taste tests, posters, and giving entrees engaging names—that helped increase acceptability of fruits, vegetables, beans, and other healthy foods.
Despite the USDA’s current plan, the good news is that more and more schools are choosing to up the fruits and veggies on their menus. Approximately 14 percent of school districts across the U.S. offered plant-based options in 2017, which was up from 11.5 percent just the year before.
Throughout the country, students are digging into delicious plant-based options like veggie salad bowls and three-bean vegan chili in Los Angeles, quinoa with roasted veggies and edamame in Capistrano, Calif., and falafel with rice and locally grown farm-fresh apples in Ithaca, N.Y.
In addition to keeping students healthy, plant-based school meals can also help schools save money and reduce their environmental impact. When Oakland Unified School District in California introduced more plant-based options it saved $42,000 over two years, reduced its carbon footprint by 14 percent, and saved 42 million gallons of water.
Lawmakers are taking notice. California and New York have recently introduced legislation that would help schools serve more plant-based lunches. If the USDA had students’ best interests at heart, it would also be finding ways to provide them more healthy school meals.
Maggie Neola, RD, LD, is a staff dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.