Students across the nation lobby for plant-based school food to support nutritional inclusivity and climate action
Guest Blog from the 2023 Plant Powered Youth Steering Committee
The Plant Powered Youth Steering Committee, established in 2022 by the Healthy Future Students and Earth Coalition, is composed of high school and college students from across the nation seeking to expand access to nutritious, plant-based foods in schools from an anti-oppression lens. Our members advocate for more nutritious and environmentally friendly school meals, while centering the voices of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and students with low incomes who are most impacted by our school meal program and by climate change. The committee values the youth voice in governmental policy decisions and recognizes the importance of more plant-based meals in K-12 education as an essential component to lessening the health disparities seen between high and low-income students, as well as between white and students of color. We value intersectionality and are driven by the urgent need to solve our public health crisis, to protect the increasing number of animals killed annually for food, and to fight the climate crisis.
This July, we flew to D.C. to meet with our U.S. Senators and Representatives. We advocated for the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act, which would provide $10 million of voluntary grant-based funding to schools that decide to include plant-based menu offerings, and make it easier for students to access non-dairy milk in schools. We also lobbied for multiple farm reform bills to limit the expansion and creation of new factory farms, place power back in the hands of farmers, and provide resources to farms transitioning out of factory farming. Students also met with the House Education and Workforce Committee, which oversees school meal policy, and New York Representative Jamaal Bowman, who gave us an inspiring talk about how to effectively advocate for the change we want to see in the world.
After our meetings on Capitol Hill, we met with the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school meal program and agriculture policy to request their support for more plant-based options in schools through more training and education for school districts, more plant-forward nutrition standards, and more plant-based options in the USDA Foods Program. We also met with the Executive Office of the President to ask for their support to expand plant-based school meals, and to provide plant-based options in federal facilities as they committed to do in the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Health, and Nutrition. Each student shared our own inspiring personal stories, ranging from experiencing food insecurity growing up to facing a lack of options due to religious restrictions.
Here are some of our stories and experiences in D.C.:
Nitya Jakka — 17, Illinois: As a student at a residential high school, I had to change my diet from vegan to vegetarian to support my basic nutritional needs because there were not sufficient plant-based options offered at my school. I worked with my school’s food service providers to bring more plant based options to the menu and learned that nationwide policy change is necessary for all schools to do the same. Lobbying in D.C. enabled me to advocate for change to make school food accessible and nutritious for all, as it should be. Learning about current environmental legislation from the offices of Representative Bill Foster and Senators Tammy Duckworth and Richard Durbin left me inspired and eager to continue lobbying for change. The highlight of my first lobbying experience was learning about the experiences of the other members of the Youth Steering Committee. Although we come from a wide range of backgrounds and each have different reasons for fighting for plant based meal availability in schools, we worked together to strengthen each other. I left the D.C. fly-in feeling more motivated and inspired than I had ever been. Millions of youth across the nation are affected by the lack of proper nourishment due to lactose intolerance, religious restrictions, and food insecurity, but by shifting towards plant-based food, we can improve climate impact, animal welfare, and socioeconomic inclusivity.
Lauren — 20, Plymouth, Massachusetts: I am so grateful for our committee’s DC lobbying experience. In particular, I found my meeting with Senator Markey’s office to be enlightening, as his team is looking into introducing the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act on the Senate side. There are a lot of people working hard towards progress to benefit people, animals, and the planet. Our committee’s meetings with the Executive Office of the President and the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and Agriculture Marketing Service, however, were disappointing. A recurring theme was a displacement of responsibility. There was no acknowledgement as to what steps USDA can take to shift from animal agriculture to crop production to reduce emissions from our food system, as animal agriculture accounts for 9% of all emissions in the U.S. USDA placed the blame for the lack of plant-based meals in schools = “supply and demand” — a fabrication of our situation where students most often do not have a vegan meal option in their schools. Harrison Hines from the White House told us, in response to our request for plant-based meals in federal institutions and K-12 education, that the administration’s first priority is to feed everyone first before they get to feeding people plant-based meals. This will only exacerbate already shocking income and racial health disparities. People with low incomes should not have to take whatever is available. Everyone is worthy of a healthy, plant-based meal.
Nancy — 17, Indiana: I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to advocate for nutrient-dense, sustainable, and equitable meals together with some of the most incredible people in D.C. Hearing and connecting with everyone’s backgrounds and interests, I constantly felt so inspired by all the students around me and the deep passion we all share for improving on these issues. As a student deeply passionate about nutrition, I have previously worked with my school district to bring more nutritious, plant-based meals to my school’s cafeteria. Unfortunately, in the process, we were severely limited by federal policies that made it difficult to do so. This trip was an extremely powerful way to break down some of those barriers to accessing plant-based school food, and I urge others to get involved in this movement.
Ananya — 20, Georgia: The DC Fly-In was such an incredible experience! As many of my other peers, it was my first time lobbying, and it was such an empowering experience. I got to meet with my personal representatives and senators, the Education and Workforce committee, the White House, and the USDA- and it was an honor to share my values on how school food can be improved and my personal experience surrounding school systems. I was restricted due to my religion not allowing me to eat certain foods such as beef and pork. The chicken options in schools were often greasy and unappetizing to eat every day. So, as someone who consumed meat and dairy, I often found myself wanting healthy and more plant-based options in schools that were more appetizing. I also wished for more culturally appropriate meals in schools, as most of the food was American food, and nothing that I would eat at home was represented in my cafeteria. When transitioning to a plant-based diet in high school, I found myself even more restricted, often to just a PB&J sandwich, which is not fulfilling or nutritionally complete for a student. Although some meetings were not as productive as we hoped, we hope to follow-up with the offices that we met with to reiterate our asks of being more inclusive of plant-based food!
Ahmad — 18, New York: Being a muslim, if food is not prepared in the halal way, or there is doubt of it not being prepared in the halal way, I can not eat it. Much of school lunch meat falls under this label of not prepared in the halal way or there is doubt of whether or not it was. As a result I didn’t eat school lunch on most days and wouldn’t get the nutrients needed to keep energy levels up for the remainder of the school day. Plant-based meals would get rid of all doubt of whether the food was prepared in a halal way because plants are inherently halal. This means all muslims can eat them while abiding by their religion and get the energy they need to perform well in school.
Jazmin — 25, California: While I was unable to attend the DC fly-in with my fellow YSC members, I still had the opportunity to meet with staffers for my representatives and senators virtually. I met with staffers for Diane Feinstein, Robert Garcia, and Alex Padilla. I have no prior lobbying experience so this whole journey was new and nerve wracking but having the option to meet virtually where I could set a time that worked for me was incredible! I had no idea just how accessible these representatives and senators are to their constituents and this is an experience I would recommend to anyone who is looking to get involved. Despite not being vegan or plant-based myself, I am a strong advocate for more accessible food in school cafeterias. A big point I tried to emphasize in my meetings with staffers is food allergies and how having plant-based options would allow students with allergies to have actual options that were relevant to their dietary restrictions. I shared my personal story about how I faced a lot of food insecurity growing up and how my lactose intolerance affected my ability to choose proper meals at school when there were constantly not enough options for me. After I shared this with the staffers, I felt like a lot of my concern fell on ears that were unwilling to listen or did not care. Every single staffer told me that they felt my cohort and myself were “doing enough” and that my representatives/senators could only help if the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act “even got to the Senate.” Because of this, I felt ignored and tossed aside almost as though my voice did not matter and they were not taking our meeting seriously. While this was not the experience I had hoped for, I think it was very eye opening and would strongly encourage anyone who wants plant-based options on school cafeteria menus to keep fighting and start lobbying with their local staffers. I believe once the government sees just how passionate everyone is about getting access to more food options, they will understand that change needs to be made now rather than later.
Maya — 18, Maryland: As someone who has not had any lobbying experience, talking to staffers of senators and representatives was a truly enlightening experience. I had limited knowledge of policy and was amazed by how easy it was to speak to those that are directly tied to decisions being made on the national level. In high school, I helped create a composting program in the school cafeteria to mitigate the effects of food waste in landfills. I decided to redirect my focus to the quality of food: what students were putting into their bodies and how that affects the environment. I learned that the production of meat and dairy contributes to harmful greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and manure from those animals affecting the air and water quality of communities near these industrial agriculture sites. I do not feel confident that our government is doing everything in its power to ensure that students have access to healthy, climate-friendly food options. When we were meeting with the Executive Office of the President, we were told that the first priority is to feed everyone, and then the focus can shift to more plant-based meal options. That is something I couldn’t quite understand. If children have unhealthy eating habits early on, then they are more likely to continue those habits into adulthood. I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest to improve the wellness of Americans so that they can be fully-functioning with little to no risk of diet-related illnesses. And through our conversation with the USDA, I had brought up the impacts of meat and dairy production on climate change, and they had said that they were just following the nutrition standards. Well, I would hope that the nutrition standards set in this country would allow for the prosperity of people for years to come. We must impede the calamity which is the climate crisis to ensure our species does not cause unnecessary and irreversible harm to itself and the organisms we share this world with.
Willow — 17, Texas: As a vegetarian, it is difficult to find plant-based foods to eat at lunch in school. Most of the schools I have been to did not offer plant-based options, and my current school only offers chickpeas, even in meals where it is not necessarily culturally appropriate to the dish. I was excited to fly to D.C. to push for bills that would make it easier for plant-based students to get the proper nutrients they need at school. Before flying to D.C., I had never lobbied in person, and although it was difficult to make the bills appeal to my state’s representatives, as I am from Texas, I still learned a lot from meeting with them. Our meetings with the Democratic House Education and Workforce Committee as well as Representative Jamaal Bowman were so encouraging and taught me so much about how to lobby and make change.
Angelique — 19, New York: The D.C. Fly-In was truly an enriching and illuminating experience. Despite the hiccups– including my flight there being delayed by almost 5 hours–, I can say that I came out of this trip a changed person. My meetings with staffers were a bit hectic as a result of near-constant rescheduling, but dealing with it definitely contributed to my maturation overall. The meetings themselves went fairly well, and I feel like I was able to emphasize the importance of supporting/opposing certain bills by utilizing my own life story. I realized how approachable these staffers were, and that lobbying truly isn’t as daunting as it may appear on the surface. I would absolutely do it again! I saw amazing sights in D.C. and met amazing people. I felt inspired and supported to continue my journey as a vegan, which I’ve been engaged in for 4 years. It is clear to me that now, more than ever, we need to advocate for the health of our students, as well as the health of our planet. Getting more plant-based options in schools is of the utmost importance, and I will fight for this until it is a reality!
Myla — 16, Maryland: For me, the D.C. Fly-In was incredibly eye-opening and empowering. It was my first time doing in-person lobbying, and I enjoyed meeting staffers for my members of Congress and bringing bills such as the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act to their attention. From sprinting to my next meeting in 90-degree weather to eating the best vegan food, I will always cherish this experience and all the memories it created. Most importantly, this trip inspired a great sense of urgency in me and has inspired me to work on a school campaign and children’s book advocating for more plant-based options in schools. I am excited to continue the momentum and work of the Plant-Powered Youth Steering Committee!
Ava Cuevas- 16, California: Throughout all of my years of animal and plant-based advocacy, finding people, especially other youth activists, was truly a struggle that I didn’t recognize was affecting my advocacy. Connecting to fellow youth activists and those who I feel reflect my passion and dedication to the Youth Steering Committee inspired me and the hope I needed. Being able to participate in the YSC in the D.C. Fly-In was truly an incredible experience. I feel I grew as a learner, activist, and person. Learning and lobbying about the different bills discussed, such as the Farm System Reform Act and the Whole Milk For Healthy Students Act, felt empowering. Lobbying to the staffers of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, along with Representative Ken Calvert, felt like change was in the making. Hearing the YSC members tell their personal stories of adopting plant-based during our agency meetings was a true inspiration. Connecting with fellow youth activists from around the country in D.C. for plant-based options in schools makes it clear to me that monumental change is in the making.