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Vegetarian Options in School Meals

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Vegetarian Options in School Meals

Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin
Purpose: Beneficial Information
To: Child Nutrition Program SponsorsNumber: NSD-SNP-17-2012
Attention: Food Service/Program DirectorsDate: November 2012
Subject: Vegetarian Options in School Meals
Reference: Assembly Concurrent Resolution 16: Nutrition: Vegetarian School Lunches (Nation), Resolution Chapter 62, Statutes of 2003


This Management Bulletin (MB) provides information on Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 16: Nutrition: Vegetarian School Lunches (Nation), Resolution Chapter 62, Statutes of 2003. It encourages School Food Authorities (SFA) to offer plant-centered vegetarian entrée options to meet the needs of their student population and provides information on helpful resources.

Lean and Green Kids sponsored ACR 16; calling for daily optional plant-centered vegetarian meals to improve student health, protect the environment, and meet the needs of students who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for any reason. A broad spectrum of organizations endorsed the resolution, including the American Cancer Society, California State Parent Teachers Association, California School Boards Association, California Association of Student Councils, and the Animal Legislative Action Network. Specifically, ACR 16 urges the California Department of Education (CDE) to: 

  • Develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that would provide daily, optional, plant-centered vegetarian school lunches, prepared without meat and dairy products, and offered with a similar standard for variety, cycle of repeat, and availability as meat and dairy options
  • Encourage school districts to voluntarily phase in these menu changes over approximately four years
  • Include information about multicultural and vegetarian and/or vegan eating patterns in the nutrition education materials and instruction

In November 2011, the CDE submitted a report to the Governor, the Legislature, and the Legislative Analyst’s office on efforts made to offer optional vegetarian school lunches. The report includes the full text of ACR 16, information on vegetarian diets and their health benefits, and statewide efforts to support plant-centered meal service and nutrition education in schools. The report also highlights school districts that offer plant-centered meals. The legislative report on ACR 16 is available on the CDE Legislation, Regulation, and Policies Web page at


Before SFAs can address the needs of their vegetarian students, it is important to know that there are many types of vegetarians, depending on what they exclude from their diet. They include: 

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products but no meat, poultry, or fish.
  • Lacto vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and egg derivatives such as egg whites or albumin.
  • Vegans or “strict” vegetarians eat no animal products—no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, or other dairy products. Vegans frequently avoid foods that include animal products as ingredients, foods flavored with meat extracts, baked items made with eggs or butter, and foods prepared with gelatin made with animal bones or casein (from milk). Some vegans avoid foods that involve animal processing such as honey, sugar, and vinegar.
  • Semi-vegetarians follow a vegetarian eating plan but occasionally eat meat, poultry, or fish.
Health Benefits and Incidence of Vegetarianism

Compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians tend to have a healthier weight and lower risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Vegetarian diets may include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fiber, and phytochemicals, which may protect humans from cancers and other diseases. Therefore, providing vegetarian options can offer health benefits to all students.

According to a nationwide poll conducted in 2010, three percent of eight to eighteen year-old children and adolescents were vegetarian; close to one percent were vegan. While this data does not indicate a high level of need, SFAs should assess their own student population’s preferences for vegetarian meals in order to meet their needs and increase participation in their school lunch program.

The California Department of Education’s Commitment

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Team California for Healthy Kids initiative promotes healthy eating and physical activity throughout the day, every day, in schools, before and after school agencies, early childhood programs, and communities. The campaign focuses on making healthy choices the easy choices. In alignment with this initiative, the CDE is committed to working closely with the SFAs to offer healthy plant-centered meals through: 

  • Including guidance in trainings to increase plant-centered vegetarian options, which aligns with the Nutrition Services Division (NSD) Training and Education Needs Assessment committee’s recommendation to provide SFAs training on planning and preparing plant-based meals, incorporating cultural foods into school meals, and vegetarianism
  • Continuing to share resources with SFAs on planning nutritionally balanced plant-centered vegetarian meals and standardized recipes, as they become available
  • Surveying  SFAs in spring 2013 to gather best practices and learn more about their training needs
  • Incorporating information learned from the survey into appropriate SFA trainings and resources while sharing best practices and sample menus in fall 2013
  • Conducting a Webinar on offering plant-centered vegetarian meals in school lunches in School Year 2013–14

Some of the steps the NSD has already taken include: 

  • Including information in trainings on ways to offer beans and vegetable sub-groups more frequently through the National School Lunch Program
  • Collaborating with Barbara Gates of Lean and Green Kids and Miguel Villareal of Novato Unified School District to present a session titled “Why Provide Plant-Based Vegetarian School Lunches?” at the California School Nutrition Association conference on November 11, 2012
  • Developing vegetarian meal resources in the Fresh, Regional, Education-Supportive, HealthyMeals@Schools electronic tool kit, which will be available on the California Healthy Kids Resource Center Web site in 2013, at [Note: this content is no longer available online.]

The attached list includes resources on vegetarian diets and recipes.


The NSD urges all SFAs to consider the needs of all students as they plan their menus, including those of plant-centered vegetarians. Recommended action steps are: 

  • Assess student needs regarding vegetarian meals from lacto-ovo to plant-centered options
  • Utilize available resources to educate and train SFA staff on vegetarian diets
  • Phase in plant-centered and other vegetarian entrees over the next four school years to increase variety and frequency of availability of vegetarian entrees
  • Assess new menu items for acceptance and promote these to ensure selection by students and a positive impact on participation in the school lunch program

If you have any questions about this MB, please contact Mandeep Punia, Nutrition Education Consultant, by phone at 916-323-6037 or by e-mail at

Resources on Vegetarianism

Policy and Regulation
  • Report to the Governor, Legislature, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office on Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) No. 16: Nutrition: Vegetarian School Lunches. Prepared by the California Department of Education, Nutrition Services Division, November 2011:
Nutrition and Vegetarianism
Online Training
Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, October 3, 2017
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