Just as the UK adults are increasingly and actively switching to plant-based alternatives, this trend is now trickling down to children who are influenced by the dietary choices of their parents. According to research by BBC Good Food in September 2021, over 20% of British children are already vegan or are considering becoming vegan in the near future. The research also highlighted that 8% of children between the ages of 5 and 16 are following a vegan diet and 13% are vegetarian. BBC Good Food’s editor Christine Hayes believes that children are attuned to the need to be sustainable; “They are passionate about exploring alternative diets and methods of food production that could be more sustainable for the planet”. This raises the question of whether schools, colleges, universities, and other educational establishments in the UK are doing enough to cater for this developing trend.

US leading the way in introducing Vegan Fridays

Over 1,700 public schools in New York City (NYC) are currently rolling out a new Vegan Friday programme. This is the largest initiative of its type in the whole country and will see children between kindergarten age (5–6-year-olds) and twelfth grade (17–18 year-olds) all being offered a vegan alternative on Friday. This exciting initiative which is being championed by the new mayor of NYC, Eric Adams, is intended to improve the health and quality of life of students in the city. Adams said of the campaign, “In one voice, we talk about fighting childhood obesity, diabetes yet you go into a school building every day, and you see the food that feeds our healthcare crisis…The children have been calling me and saying they want better food in schools, and I’m going to do the best I can to give them the options of a healthier diet so we can stop feeding the crisis”.

Interestingly, Eric Adams has much to be thankful for when it comes to eating a plant-based diet. He became vegan in 2016 and credits his diet for reversing his advancing diabetes.

What does the UK’s school food guidance recommend?

The Department of Health provides a great deal of guidance and defines requirements when it comes to how schools in the UK should feed pupils. It recommends that a child’s healthy balanced diet should consist of:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of unrefined starchy foods
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • some milk and dairy foods
  • a small amount of food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt

While the guidance does not prescribe a vegan or plant-based diet, it does recommend provision for vegetarians and a meat-free day once per week. Specifically, the government’s guidance advises:

  • encouraging all children to have a meat-free day each week, using alternatives such as pulses, soya mince, tofu and mycoprotein-based meat substitute
  • providing a portion of non-dairy protein on 3 or more days each week for vegetarians
  • ensuring vegetarian meals are as varied as the rest of the menu by using pulses twice a week, soya, tofu, or mycoprotein-based meat substitute once or twice each week, and eggs and cheese once or twice each week

Is it time for schools to go beyond the guidance?

It is notable that the Department of Education only requires that schools encourage pupils to eat a meat-free alternative once per week. Also, the meat-free option may still contain dairy and eggs. The reality is that children are watching what their parents are eating and hearing the message that going plant-based is not only better for their health but it is also essential in the fight against climate change. If schools don’t start to catch up and perhaps consider offering a wholly vegan option once a day, they may find themselves losing popularity and favour with their customers; our children. Ultimately, they have the right to have a say in what they eat each day hence it may be time to start listening to what they want.