All state schools in England should offer pupils a compulsory plant-based menu one day a week, under new recommendations to the government that aim to make school meals more environmentally friendly and reflect changing dietary advice.
Given wide acceptance that diets need to change to address the climate crisis – including by eating less meat and more beans and pulses – the Soil Association is urging the Department for Education to replace a non-mandatory recommendation for a weekly meat-free day with a statutory menu once a week offering only plant-based proteins and foods.
The relatively few schools that already offer a meat-free day are often serving up less healthy lunches such as cheese-laden pizza, the organic food and farming group says, underlining the need for kitchens to be given support to provide more imaginative, healthier meals.
The DfE has started reviewing school food standards in light of the latest evidence on reducing meat and sugar consumption and boosting fibre in Britons’ diets.
The UK Committee on Climate Change report released earlier this month recommended a 20% decrease in meat consumption and an increase in the consumption of plant-based proteins, while a recent study from EAT-Lancet also recommended a shift from meat to plant proteins on climate grounds.
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“The update of the school food standards provides an ideal opportunity to make school meals healthier and more climate-friendly,” said the SA’s policy officer, Rob Percival. “We know that children would benefit nutritionally from eating more beans, pulses, and plant-based proteins. The climate would also benefit – we should all be eating less and better meat. Some schools are showing that its possible to serve children healthy plant-based meals, alongside higher welfare meat. It’s time the government caught up – the updated school food standards should require that schools serve a plant-based protein day each week.”
With increasing numbers of pupils now striking over climate change, the SA is highlighting food and diet as an issue of growing importance to young people.
The current standards were introduced in 2015, replacing the original nutritional regulations launched in 2008 following TV chef Jamie Oliver’s personal crusade to improve the standard of school meals – and remove junk food such as the notorious “turkey twizzlers”. Adherence is mandatory for all state-funded schools, except for academies established between 2010 and 2014. The DfE has convened an expert panel to review the school food standards update, which includes representatives from Public Health England.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Our school food standards ensure that school meals are healthy and nutritious. They do not require meat to be served every day, and schools have the freedom to introduce a meat-free day each week.”