Advocating for Animal-Free Options in School Meal ProgramsPosted by Paul M. Hamburger, partner, and Kelly Anne Targett, associate, Proskauer Rose LLP on April 27th, 2011
In January of this year, the USDA proposed modifications to the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program intended to offer healthier food choices to our nation’s children in the hope of staving off the obesity epidemic plaguing this country. The regulations as proposed would require school meals to feature more fruits and vegetables, less saturated and trans fats, less sodium, and less calories. Inexplicably, however, the USDA did not recommend decreasing the volume of animal products offered to school children as an obvious and cost-effective means of achieving those goals.
Concerned with the USDA’s lapse in this regard, ALDF reached out to the law firm of Proskauer Rose for volunteer legal assistance aimed at recommending modifications to the USDA’s proposal that would create more animal-free options in school meals. We immediately undertook extensive research on the topic of childhood nutrition, and discovered abundant support for the proposition that veganism and vegetarianism are not only nutritionally adequate for growth and development in children, but also contribute to healthier lifestyles into adulthood with significantly reduced risks for obesity and chronic disease.
Armed with a plethora of research from sources as diverse as Dr. Spock, the American Dietetic Association, and the USDA’s own publication, “Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans,” we prepared and filed comments that focused on two primary shortcomings in the proposed amendments to the school meal programs. First, we took issue with the USDA’s ongoing prohibition against tofu as a “meat alternate.” Although soy proteins are acceptable, the breakfast and lunch meal programs continue to reject the use of tofu as a protein. Second, we objected to the existing requirement that students who do not wish to drink cow’s milk must provide a letter from a parent or guardian in order to obtain “permission” to consume non-dairy milk through the school meal programs.
Pointing to data on the significant number of children consuming plant-based diets in the United States, we argued that the tofu and non-dairy milk limitations have an unfair impact on the millions of vegan and vegetarian children who effectively are prohibited from participating in the school meal programs. We also emphasized the missed opportunity to expose children who regularly consume animal products to healthier plant-based food choices and alternatives to meat. Finally, we highlighted the inconsistency between the school meal programs and the current statements of federal nutrition policy—including statements from the USDA itself—which promote consumption of tofu as a protein and an alternative to meat. We argued that those inconsistencies confuse children, who are encouraged to eat tofu at home but will never see it as a component in an animal-free school meal.
After stressing the flaws in the proposed amendments, we encouraged the USDA to revise the rule to permit tofu as an alternative to meat and to allow children to freely choose non-dairy milk in school meal programs. Our comments were filed on April 13, 2011, and will be considered by the USDA, together with the other public comments it received, before it finalizes the regulations that will govern school meal programs in the coming years.
Proskauer was proud to represent ALDF and children and animals across the country in addressing this important issue, and we thank those of you who joined ALDF and took a stand by submitting your own comments!