“Got Milk?” is a slogan American students are familiar with beginning in elementary school. For decades, meat and dairy-centric dishes have overshadowed plant-based foods in cafeterias nationwide, but now, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has signed a new bill into law that will mandate plant-based school lunches statewide. The new legislation will ensure that the entire Illinois public school district – with 1,887,316 children enrolled as of 2021 – provides plant-based meals to its students.

The new law (House Bill 4089) will set a precedent for school districts across the United States. Sponsored by State Representative Cyril Nichols of Chicago and State Senator Dave Koehler of Peoria, the legislation hopes to ensure students receive healthy, affordable meals.

“Whether a student’s dietary needs are rooted in religious, health-related or other, personal reasons, offering a plant-based meal option would satisfy a variety of requirements,” Koehler said in a statement. “Providing a secondary healthy lunch option in our schools is a win all-around.”

The legislation will mandate that all Illinois schools offer plant-based meals that meet the federal nutritional regulations. The law will also include new meal options that will cater to Muslim students following halal dietary laws.

“Well-rounded, nutritious meals of all kinds are vital to students’ ability to learn and succeed,” Nichols said, House sponsor of the legislation. “Offering more healthy lunch options in our schools helps our students thrive.”

Currently, the federal school meal program does not subsidize meals that exclude milk. The federal regulations state that participating districts and food providers “cannot discriminate against the drinking of cow’s milk before school, after school, on school grounds, or at any school-sponsored event.” Now, state governments including Illinois are facing off against these standards with the new law scheduled to go into effect on August 1, 2023.

Vegan Meal Programs in the United States

Illinois’ new legislation joins several other campaigns and movements to provide students with nutritional and sustainable plant-based meals. One recent study found that vegetarian kids are just as healthy as meat-eaters, dispelling decades of myths that plant-based foods lack the necessary nutrition for school children.

Within New York City, plant-based Mayor Eric Adams launched a meal program that provides all one million students with affordable plant-based meals. The “Vegan Fridays” project introduced plant-based dishes including Mediterranean pasta, black bean, plantain rice bowls, veggie tacos, and other offerings to every NYC public school. The initiative aims to provide plant-based education and nutritional meals to underserved communities across the city.

Some companies have started entering into the education foodservice sector as well. Most recently, the foodservice giant Sodexo partnered with the Humane Society of the United States in an effort to bring college students more plant-based foods. In an effort to increase its plant-meal offerings by 42 percent by 2025, the major food company is rolling out specialized plant-based offerings to its university partners nationwide.

Plant-Based School Lunch in Brazil

This April, the Brazilian municipal government in Salvador partnered with the Humane Society Internation and Conscious Eating Brazil to deliver 10 million sustainable meals to students per year. The city’s school system provides 170,000 meals every day, and these plans intend to deliver tasty, nutritious plant-based meals year-round. The government also announced that these new menus will cater to the student’s specific needs and familial food traditions.

The organization announced that the meal program will help save 75,000 tons of CO2 emissions, as well as 400 million liters of water, and prevent 16,000 hectares of forest from deforestation. The meal program also coincides with a major boom of vegans and vegetarians across Brazil, with nearly 14 percent of Brazilians claiming to be vegan or vegetarian.

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