On February 4th, public schools in New York City implemented vegan-only Fridays as part of a city-wide program to improve eating habits and encourage plant-based meals. Experts are Cornell weigh in on this change and are available for interviews.
Angela Odoms-Young is the Director of the New York State Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and was on the committee to develop the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program/School Breakfast Program.
“Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium are associated with a lower risk of chronic conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer.
“Increasing plant-based meals and meal options can also have several other benefits including helping to establish positive eating behaviors in early life by exposing children to new food options, creating opportunities for new and smaller vendors, and promoting environmental sustainability.
“Few studies have evaluated the feasibility and acceptability of increasing vegan meals in school lunch. Although, one smaller study showed that there was not a difference in food waste. While more vegan meals in school lunch could have several benefits, there are several important considerations. The focus should be on including whole fresh and/or frozen foods that are minimally processed such as whole or chopped vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds. Vegan options that are ultra-processed and high in added salt and fat could also have negative effects on health.”
Adrienne Bitar, is a lecturer in Cornell’s American Studies Program and an expert in the history and culture of American food.
“With the decision to serve only vegan meals to NYC public school students on Fridays, Mayor Eric Adams isn’t just making a stance for health and sustainability. He is also following in a long tradition in American political history of advocating for a plant-based diet. Ever since Herbert Hoover pushed ‘Meatless Tuesdays’ during World War I, politicians have seen the value in urging Americans to adopt a meat-free diet to inspire patriotism, reduce waste, and conserve natural resources.
“If climate change is the defining global crisis of our generation, then vegan meals have the power to show children that even small moves matter when it comes to sustainability. Adopting a vegan diet can give New York City students - likely too young to vote with a ballot - the ability to ‘vote with their fork’ by showing their support for a more sustainable diet.”
Tashara Leak, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, studies public interventions that address socioeconomic and environmental influences on food choices.
“We need a plan for how to encourage students to eat the school lunch provided on Fridays, much of which may be new to them. First, we should prioritize offering vegan options that students are already familiar with, like fresh salads, beans and rice, plantains, etc. For more novel foods, we should be thinking about marketing and how to make the foods visually appealing. What we want to avoid is students opting out of school lunch and instead bringing less healthy options to school.”