Mat McDermott is Senior Director of Communications for the Hindu American Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles. The views expressed are his own
If lunches in California’s public schools are any indication, the fundamental connection between what we eat, our personal health, and planetary health is not part of the curriculum.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that reducing meat and dairy consumption yields profound improvements in personal health and is one of the most important things any of us can do to solve the climate crisis, a report from Friends of the Earth released last year found that just 4% of the main dishes served in California’s largest public school districts are plant-based.
Furthermore, less than half of the 25 largest school districts in the state offered plant-based meal options every day; three districts only offered plant-based options once per week; seven offered them once a month; and, four never have plant-based options on the menu. Making it all the worse is that pre-packaged nut butter and jelly sandwiches are the only plant-based option in half the high schools and one-third of the elementary schools.
Modeling good nutrition and planet-friendly eating this is not.
Many school districts are in a bind when it comes to lunches. Current systems favor highly subsidized industrialized food producers over more local small- and mid-sized farmers. Federal programs erroneously prioritize meat and dairy as healthy eating. And schools don’t always currently have the funding or support to provide more plant-based options, even if they’d like to.
Which is where HR 4108, the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act, comes in.
Introduced into Congress last year by Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-NY), and co-sponsored by 27 Democratic representatives, largely from New York and California, this piece of legislation intends to establish at least 50 grants to enable schools to provide 100% plant-based food and milk options to their students, for a period of three years.
Prioritized under the act are schools that serve a high proportion of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, coming from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is a particularly important consideration considered that African Black and Hispanic children in California have obesity at three times the rate of white children; in New York City public schools nearly 40% of kids in grades K-8 are obese.
Switching to plant-based meals at public schools will be a strong contributor to lessening this. Agriculture as a whole accounts for 21-37% of all greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC (it’s higher in some surveys). Swapping in black bean burgers for beef, for example, will at the same time improve the health of students while massively reducing the climate impact of that meal. Doing so will also improve the mental health of our school children. Recent research shows that children who eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day score more highly on surveys of mental wellbeing.
If you want to support HR 4108 — and I think you should — please take a moment to contact your Member of Congress. If they already back the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act, please thank them for doing so (check if they do here). If they don’t please urge them to do so.