Lawmakers aim to help schools provide plant-based lunches

Lawmakers aim to help schools provide plant-based lunches

(Calif.) Schools would be incentivized to offer healthier, climate-friendly lunch options such as plant-based entrées and plant-based milk under a new bill that aims to reduce California’s carbon footprint while exposing children to different foods.

AB 479, known as the Healthy Climate-Friendly School Lunch Act, would provide K-12 schools additional state funding to implement the menu changes. The bill also includes support for recipe development, staff training, student engagement and other technical assistance needed to boost school meal program participation rates and help officials successfully serve plant-based foods that kids will enjoy.

Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, D-Van Nuys and author of the bill, noted that AB 479 will provide long-term benefits to both student health and the environment.

“Our state is a global microcosm with many different cultural needs, (and) California’s school meal policy should not only reflect this diversity, but also incorporate the extensive research on the health benefits of plant-based nutrition,” Nazarian said in a statement. “AB 479 will increase access to healthy food options for low-income communities and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time.” 

In 2017, California lawmakers approved a bill extending the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program until 2030, and set a new greenhouse gas reduction target of at least 40 percent below the 1990 level of emissions.

Last year, researchers at Tuft University found that shifting to more plant-based options can reduce one’s carbon footprint by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and requires less land and water for food production.

Past studies have shown that protein rich plant-based foods like lentils and beans are 26 to 34 times less carbon intensive than beef–prompting animal rights advocates to call on policymakers to help schools provide such options to students.

For instance, Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement that if every public school swapped out a beef burger for a veggie burger just once a month, it would save 300 million pounds of CO2 a year.

Hamerschlag’s organization is one of a handful of advocacy groups co-sponsoring the bill, including Animal Hope in Legislation, Social Compassion in Legislation, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

While numerous school districts across the state have expressed a desire to increase plant-based offerings, Nazarian’s office said many report facing cost barriers since animal-based foods and cow’s milk are heavily subsidized by the federal government relative to plant-based options.

Some districts–including San Diego, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Novato, Capistrano and Oakland–have already implemented school meal programs that include more plant-based entrée choices.

AB 479 doesn’t mandate that schools adopt a fully plant-based menu in schools, but would provide technical and financial support to districts that choose to expand their menu offerings.

Under the bill, eligible entrées must be free of animal products or byproducts to qualify for additional reimbursement. This means those entrées could not include meat, poultry, fish, dairy or eggs. Schools would also be eligible to apply for reimbursement if they serve an increase in plant-based options from a baseline year.

Those who have come out in support of AB 479 have noted that apart from the environmental impact of moving to more plant-based foods, the bill could also have significant long-term health benefits for students.

According to a position paper released in 2016 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, maintaining a more plant-based diet can reduce the risk of diabetes, help manage weight, and provide protection against cancer as well as other diseases.

“Bringing plant-based meals to schools will help students establish healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime,” Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said in a statement. “Not only do these foods help students stay focused and energized in the classroom today, but they also reduce long-term risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.”

The bill will likely be heard by the Assembly Education Committee later this month.

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