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Education

Metro East schools rarely have vegan or vegetarian lunch options, but that could change

Triad Middle School 6th grade students eat lunch in March 2018. An Illinois bill could require schools to offer plant-based lunch options to students.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Triad Middle School 6th grade students eat lunch in March 2018. An Illinois bill could require schools to offer plant-based lunch options to students.

Abbi Berta assumed she’d have to make a lunch for her daughter to take to school everyday when she starts kindergarten in Collinsville this fall.

Berta became a vegetarian as a teenager and has been vegan for 15 years. She’s raising her young daughter on the same diet.

A new law waiting for the governor’s signature may give Berta’s daughter the option of buying lunch at school.

The state legislature cleared a bill that would require Illinois school districts to provide a plant-based lunch option that complies with federal nutritional requirements to any student who submits a prior request to the district asking for such an option. The bill has been sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker for his consideration.

“It would make my life a whole lot easier,” Berta said.

While the family is vegan by choice, her daughter also has a milk protein allergy.

“I’m a local business owner with an interesting schedule, and I believe that I should be able to have faith in our systems that we support with our tax money,” she said. “It’d be great if we were accommodated.”

While the percent of the population identifying as vegan or vegetarian has risen only slightly in the last 20 years, more Americans report that they’re eating less meat. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly one in four adult Americans reported they were eating less meat than the year before, citing health, environmental concerns, food safety and animal welfare as their main motivations.

Faux meat options have become more commonly available over the last few years at grocery stores, restaurants and fast food chains, including Burger King, White Castle and Panda Express.

Sales are expected to grow: faux meat products are projected to reach $85 billion in sales by 2030.

The Illinois bill is intended to accommodate students with certain religious, cultural or health concerns. Republicans who opposed the bill said it was another unfunded mandate for schools, and that there was nothing in Illinois law that was preventing those districts from offering plant-based options of their own accord.

Vegan families in the metro-east say that their diets can be socially isolating, especially before it was common for grocery stores to provide alternatives to animal products, or for restaurants to clearly include dietary notes on their menus.

The Belleville News-Democrat reviewed April lunch menus from several local school districts, and very few options are available for vegan or vegetarian students.

Vegetarian students may have lunch options some days — like cheese pizza, mozzarella sticks in marinara sauce, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — but these options can be infrequent.

School breakfasts are more likely to be vegetarian friendly, with pancakes, bagels, yogurt and eggs commonly listed on school menus.

For years, Tracy Young said her family would prepare all of their own food to be able to celebrate with friends and family. Young said that her three children — who attend Edwardsville schools — have been raised vegan, and that school lunches and snacks could be difficult when they were too young to know which ingredients were in which foods.

“I really think it would be great for vegetarians and vegans for the schools to offer that,” Young said. “It’s a lifestyle that a lot of kids’ families follow now. I think it would be a really valuable action for those kids.”

For families facing health considerations — like Berta’s daughter and her milk allergy — knowing that plant-based options are readily available would help them feel a little safer.

“I know how easy it is to misunderstand kids when they advocate for themselves,” she said. “I think it will be really important that we have her EpiPen there anyway, but if there were vegan or vegetarian options available, it would make life a little bit easier.”

Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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