NYC Rolls Out No Meat Fridays to All Public Schools

 

Over the past two years, a secondary crisis has been brewing in schools across the country. Food insecurity for families with children doubled from 14 to 28% according to researchers at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Food insecurity is the lack of access to nutritious foods that are also safe, culturally acceptable, and proportional to household income levels.

Children from lower-income households rely heavily on school meals to meet their nutritional needs, and to keep them full and focused for a day’s worth of school work. Researchers suggest that school meals are often their most important meal of the day.

As schools navigate out of the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doubling down on school nutrition standards. It’s part of their effort to “build back better” for the millions of school children around the country. These new standards set by the USDA will take effect next school year, and schools will have until 2024 to transition to the new guidelines.

These build on existing nutrition guidelines and mandate all federally funded schools across the country to meet minimum nutrition requirements. Notably, the new guidelines include requirements that:

  • 80% of grains served must be whole grains
  • The weekly sodium limit must decrease by 10% by 2024

While these guidelines may seem simple, small tweaks can have a big impact when applied to the millions of children who eat school meals every Monday through Friday.

Fiber and B-vitamins found in whole grains stabilize blood sugar levels and support digestion. Limiting sodium intake early on can reduce the risk of developing health problems like high blood pressure.

While the USDA sets new minimum requirements for all federally funded public schools, school districts can add to these guidelines to go above and beyond. In New York City, mayor Eric Adams revealed that schools in New York City are to serve completely vegan lunches on Fridays.

Unfortunately, in a rush to meet the mandate, the first Vegan Friday was bashed by some students and parents on social media. Complaints included comments that the meals served were bland and lacking in color, flavor, and nutrition. Some meals included bags of chips, plain black bean tacos, and wilted veggie stir-fries with little to no protein.

But, with proper planning, implementing Vegan Fridays could set a new precedent for nutrition in schools. Angela Odoms-Young, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University says the shift in New York City schools is “innovative and exciting”.

As vegan meals exclude animal and animal by-products (think milk, meat, eggs, cheese, and gelatin), they are replaced with high-protein plant alternatives like legumes, nuts, seeds, and even tofu. These foods are high in vitamins and minerals and offer an extra serving of vegetables that children otherwise wouldn’t get. Odoms-Young also emphasizes that implementing Vegan Fridays could reinforce healthy, long-term habits and dispel the idea that children are resistant to eating vegetables.

Given the fact that only 7% and 2% of school-aged children meet the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, respectively, implementing vegan or plant-based days in schools could have a dramatic impact on improving the nutrition of children.

While the USDA plans to build back better, individual school districts can take inspiration from New York City schools to take matters into their own hands. The global success of Meatless Mondays as a now-recognized healthier initiative for restaurants and organizations is a model for this type of initiative. With proper planning and budgeting, plant-based and vegan meals could become mainstream in schools to help children increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, and learn healthy habits for life.

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