Changes are afoot in the way the nation eats. According to The Lancet Planetary Health report from 2021, meat consumption fell in the UK by 17% between 2010–2020. Meanwhile, the Vegan Society reports that 25% of British evening meals are vegan or vegetarian, edging towards the National Food Strategy’s recommendations that meat-eating be reduced by 30% to enable future food security.
National trends in attitudes to meat-eating are being reflected in school catering. For example, the NGO ProVeg, which aims to reduce animal-product consumption by 50% by 2040, introduced the School Plates Programme in 2018. Since then, over five million plant-based meals have been dished up to pupils.
ProVeg’s UK director, Jimmy Pierson, sees the drive for less animal-based eating in schools coming from multiple directions: as well as local authorities, “We’ve also seen individuals, whether they’re an elected councillor, a teacher or a parent, determined to see change in their school or region and doing all they can to make it happen,” he says.
Lowering carbon footprints and championing local ingredients
One school that has taken the plunge into an entirely plant-based offering is Our Lady of Sion, a co-educational day school in Worthing for students aged three to 18. Headteacher Steven Jeffrey had long been reducing his own meat-eating, inspired by Paul and Linda McCartney’s Meat-Free Mondays. He also heard students talk enthusiastically about a vegan café in the town, so contacted its owners, Gary and Anna Hardley. Jeffrey was impressed by the couple’s approach to food, which focuses on being both delicious and environmentally-minded.
Gary Hardley elaborates: “Schools and businesses are attracted to both the ethical and nutritional dimensions of what we do, and the wider positive impact we’re aiming to have on the local community. We’re conscientiously working to lower our carbon footprint and champion the use of local and seasonal ingredients.”
After a successful launch on the school’s Founders Day in January, the Hardley’s company, Plant Based School Kitchens, now provides all Our Lady of Sion’s catering.
Making students mindful about what they eat
Although solely plant-based catering might not be the right fit for every school, there are other ways to cut back on animal products, which, according to a 2021 report in Nature Food, cause double the amount of greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based ones. At York House, a mixed prep school in Rickmansworth, assistant bursar Louise Camilleri found even one plant-based day a week “is an opportunity to help children explore different foods, and to think about the impact their consumption is having on the planet. Expanding their palates and making them more mindful about the food they eat will help them to make more informed choices throughout their lives [and] educate them on how they eat in the future.”
“Our focus has been on encouraging children to choose healthy and sustainable options” – Alex Evans, Windlesham House
Some schools require a more integrated approach. For example, the co-educational boarding and day school Windlesham House trialled Meat-Free Mondays “but they weren’t popular”, according to headmaster’s wife Alex Evans, who also oversees catering. “Instead, we offer vegetarian and vegan options to all pupils every day as a choice. We always have meat-free proteins on the salad bar and a variety of meals with no or low quantities of meat interspersed throughout our menu. Our focus has been on encouraging children to choose healthy and sustainable options, rather than imposing them.”
These aspects of menus are linked to assemblies and workshops on food sustainability, healthy eating and climate change.
As the schools above note, environmental and ethical concerns are a deciding factor in adopting plant-based food, and often these concerns are driven by students themselves. This is unsurprising, given University of Exeter research that found young people are more likely to believe eating animals is morally wrong, while ProVeg’s Jimmy Pierson cites a YouGov survey showing 63% of 11–18-year-olds saying the environment and climate change are among their most important issues.
Pupils drive demand for tasty plant-based meals
Paul Reed, director of catering at Habs Boys and Habs Girls in Hertfordshire, concurs: “We are finding the demand for more super-tasty, relevant plant-based meals is increasing, and this is being driven by pupil choice.” York House School, meanwhile, “worked closely with the school environmental club to look at introducing more meat-free options to the menus”, says Camilleri.
“… the demand for more super-tasty, relevant plant-based meals is increasing… [and] is being driven by pupil choice” – Paul Reed, Habs Boys and Habs Girls
Another motivation for adopting meat-free meals is a desire to keep down costs. Pierson notes that one of the top-three incentives for ProVeg’s catering team partners was price: “When we launched our School Plates programme back in 2018, most of the caterers we spoke to were driven by financial considerations,” he says. However, in Reed’s experience “it is a misconception that plant-based meals are a way of reducing overheads, as they can have the same – if not higher – cost implications.”
But Steven Jeffrey can see a way to keep costs down while adopting plant-based eating: “Let’s grow our own food together – affordability is also important here as the price of commercial foods is likely to increase further.” (Our Lady of Sion is planning raised beds for vegetables in the future.)
Engaging the whole school community
Vegetarian and plant-based food has sometimes been tarnished with old-fashioned notions that it will be ‘rabbit food’, boring, nutritionally deficient and unsatisfying. Jeffrey reveals that some of his school’s governing body “were worried it might put off prospective parents/children. One was worried that children would not get enough protein and would be unwell.”
Key to countering this was engaging the whole school community – hosting a tasting day for parents and students (“and some lovely vegan wine for the adults!”) with Plant Based School Kitchens’ staff and nutritionists on hand to answer questions.
“The notion of a plant-based nutritional diet is still new to some, so there’s still a way to go in terms of educating,” says Hardley. “Some people can be outspoken with comments but we’ve always taken this on board and worked alongside anyone who we can educate, from governors, teachers, children and curious parents.”
Engagement has proven key at York House School, too, where a Food Committee comprising parent, student and staff representatives meets each term.
At Windlesham School, “If parents raise concerns about the provision, we invite them in to discuss the menus but, most importantly, to eat lunch with us. They always leave incredibly impressed by the choice and delicious healthy options that are available,” explains Evans.
Meanwhile, reactions from students to plant-based dining has been resoundingly positive.
“The children speak very highly of all of the meals,” at Our Lady of Sion, while Windlesham’s students “are very good at trying new dishes”. This open-mindedness is reflected at York House, where “Our children are very willing to experience new tastes and cuisines.”
Vegan tasting table
Providing plant-based food that is healthy, balanced and appetising can be challenging to catering teams. Evans says Windlesham’s team is planning a vegan tasting table “to introduce the children to more sources of protein. The challenges have been finding healthy snacks that the children enjoy as much as muffins!”
“The diversity of people’s palates […] has given our team the chance to broaden the menu and increase our skills to include dishes and items we wouldn’t have been able to a few years ago” – Louise Camilleri, York House
At York House, a changing array of dietary needs keeps kitchen staff on their toes. “We are now catering for a wide variety of dietary requirements, such as allergies and religious requirements, and require extra thought and planning to be able to offer an exciting, well-rounded dining experience for all pupils,” says Camilleri. “The diversity of people’s palates […] has given our team the chance to broaden the menu and increase our skills to include dishes and items we wouldn’t have been able to a few years ago.”
Inclusivity for all
Indeed, one of the effects of plant-based catering has been increased inclusion of all students, whatever their requirements. At Habs, Reed says the focus is “to ensure inclusivity for all, ie any pupil who does not wish to consume animal products including meat, fish, dairy and eggs should be able to approach the counter and choose a plant-based option without the need to speak with an allergen champion”.
Allergens were a key reason Jeffrey approached Plant Based School Kitchens. “I noted that all food was gluten-free and the owners also endeavoured to eradicate the use of many of those ingredients linked to common allergens,” he explains. The collaboration means that all students can dine daily, worry-free.
As York House has a diverse intake, Camilleri is keen that all students have choices. “We have a lot of children who don’t eat certain things for ethical and religious reasons, and we strive to be able to offer them the same variety of foods as everyone else,” she says.
Are plant-based meals set to stay? “Yes,” says Camilleri about York House. “Initially [Meat-Free Monday] was a trial for a term but having received positive feedback from both students and staff, we are going to continue this meat-free day going forward into next year.”
Jeffrey is adamant about Our Lady of Sion’s meat-free future: “Absolutely yes,” he states. “I strongly believe that this is not just about eating – this is vital education – for the school community and our families.”
Amanda Ursell, CH&CO Independent’s nutritionist consultant
I was fortunate to have read both Human Environmental Studies and Nutrition as an undergraduate at King’s College, London. Way back then, the link between sustainable diets being good for the planet and good for us was not widely discussed, probably because our national eating habits had not descended so deeply into the current abyss of excessive amounts of over-processed, over-packaged and under-nutritious options that dominate daily mealtimes today.
Now, the link has never been more important and in need of such great focus to stimulate change. As the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health report tells us, food is the single strongest lever to optimise environmental sustainability and human health on Earth, not least because current global food production systems are the largest single driver of environmental degradation known. While over-providing for Western cultures, it is, by driving climate change, making it harder still for people living in areas at ever-increasing risk of flooding and failed crops to survive day to day.
Put simply, if we go on in Western cultures eating the way we do, we are heading not just for more and more diet-led personal health disasters but, globally, will be unable to feed the world’s population by 2050. This is less than 28 years away.
We need to take sustainable eating seriously. It is not too strong a statement to say it’s ‘now or never’.
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