Research has shown time and time again that plant-based foods are central to healthy and nutritious diets—a reality that makes it imperative that schools across the country increase their availability of plant-based options. And there’s no time to lose: The baselines set by current national food programs, such as those in schools, hospitals, and correctional facilities, are dominated by meals with high amounts of animal products and lack plant-based entrée and milk options altogether. Increasing access to plant-based milk and meals in schools—and other institutional settings—is not only key to promoting health and environmental sustainability, but can also help school food service providers better meet the varied dietary, cultural, and personal needs of students and other constituents.

In an effort to raise awareness around the opportunities for plant-based food companies looking to engage with school food programs, PBFA recently welcomed partner organization Friends of the Earth (FOE) to present “School Foods 101,” a highly informative webinar that provided PBFA members with exclusive access to top food service experts and guidance around selling to K-12 schools. Central to the webinar was FOE’s Climate-Friendly School Food Program, which helps school districts make the shift towards healthy, plant-forward menus. 

The dynamic speaker lineup included Renee Smith-Nickelson, PBFI Policy Associate; Nora Stewart, Manager of the California Climate-Friendly School Food Program at Friends of Earth; Bethany Showell, Lead Program Analyst for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Child Nutrition Programs, Nutrition and Technical Assistance Branch; and Kat Soltanmorad, Director of Food Services for Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District. Together, this packed lineup offered key context for meeting school nutrition requirements, how to determine what kind of plant-based foods K-12 schools are looking for, and tactics to prepare companies for entering this market.

Renee opened the webinar by grounding the audience in PBFA and PBFI’s work in the realm of school foods: Representing over 350 member companies, PBFA is uniquely positioned to connect plant-based food companies with food service operators and provide a clear pathway for mutual success. In addition to having a strong network of companies, distributors, and food service professionals, PBFA also has a long history of working with policymakers to advance legislation aimed at increasing student access to nutritious, and climate-friendly plant-based foods. Through our sister non-profit, the Plant Based Foods Institute (PBFI), we work to explore and expand research around the nutritional and planetary benefits of plant-based diets and foods and implement strategies to increase plant-based procurement in institutional settings. 

With the stage set, Nora took the mic to share more about how FOE defines “climate-friendly” foods—those with a low water and carbon footprint—and discuss their work to encourage organic farming practices and reduce plastic and packaging waste for consumer packaged goods. As Nora highlighted, schools serve over seven billion meals per year, and shifting procurement practices away from animal-based and toward climate-friendly, plant-based foods carries potential for a major positive impact on our food system and our planet.

She also addressed the “elephant in the room”—the role and influence of the meat and dairy industries in school food buying programs and the resulting proliferation of milk and cheap, animal-based meat products in schools. However, she countered that unfortunate reality by showcasing many positive examples of school districts strategically incorporating more plant-based foods, and walking the audience through the different pathways to access more funding for organic and plant-based options.  

Shifting gears to the national policy perspective, Bethany segued into a robust conversation about federal standards for school nutrition, breaking down the details of how the USDA approaches meal patterns and how many servings of meat/meat alternatives, milk, vegetables, fruit, and grains the standards require. With this information in mind, Bethany explained how plant-based food companies can position their foods to meet the nutritional needs of students and comply with requirements. She also broke down the Child Nutrition labeling program, what it comprises, and additional resources that brands can harness to become more familiar with the process. 

Following Bethany’s detailed presentation, Kat brought the whole picture together by sharing her experience as a food service director for Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District in California. Kat explained that the goal of school food programs is to ensure that students are fed and minimal food goes to waste, which means better understanding student preferences while keeping nutrition at the forefront—as she noted, serving pizza every day would result in clean plates, but certainly wouldn’t serve the overall well-being of students.

Factors that contribute to building a successful, balanced strategy include giving plant-based foods descriptive names that highlight the item’s taste, and working with vendors to perfect recipes before they’re available for student consumption. She also shared creative dishes her team serves and details about collaborative community partnerships that helped to bring more fresh, nutritious plant-based foods to their schools. 

Participants walked away from the webinar with one key takeaway underscoring their experience: There is an incredible opportunity for plant-based foods to advance in schools, but brands must understand the nuanced landscape of this unique corner of the industry. That’s why PBFA and our partners are steadfastly committed to the advancement of plant-based foods in food service and to helping our community thrive there. PBFA members can access the full webinar and presentation slides in the Member Portal here. Also for members, we will soon be publishing in-depth briefs designed to support companies entering the food service world and provide overviews of the current landscape, opportunities, and dynamics of working within school systems to get plant-based foods on menus. 

Stay tuned for more in January 2023!