Proposed Changes to School Meals and Their Impact on Plant-Based Options

In February 2023, the USDA issued proposed changes to the regulations around the nutrient composition of school meals. Child Nutrition Programs: Revisions to Meal Patterns Consistent with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlines changes in several key areas to help better align meals in schools with the most widely accepted US dietary recommendations. The proposal is open for public comments until April 10, 2023 and changes are scheduled to be implemented for the 2025-2026 and 2026-2027 school years. 

Here is a look at the proposed changes and their possible impact on plant-based options in schools:

Added sugars: Currently, sugars are not limited as long as sugar-containing items fit into established calorie caps for the total meal. The proposed changes will place limits on the amount of sugar in leading sources of added sugars in school meals, namely grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts, and flavored milks. USDA hopes that limiting added sugars will incentivize manufacturers to develop products with less added sugar.

Data from Innova Market Insights show that sugar-related claims, led by a no added sugar claim, currently are among the top claims on plant-based products. Products with a plant-based or vegan claim tend to be less sweet than their conventional counterparts. Additionally, manufacturers of plant-based sweetened products often use alternate natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit and naturally sweet ingredients derived from fruit. Use of the rare sugar allulose also is growing.

Milk: Proposed changes to milk regulations focus on placing limitations on the provision of flavored milk because flavored milks typically contain added sugars. The USDA doesn’t address milk alternatives and seeks feedback from school districts that offer them under the current milk substitute process requiring that nondairy beverages offered as fluid milk substitutes be nutritionally equivalent to the protein, vitamin, and mineral content of fluid cows milk. California recently became the first state to fund plant-based products in schools; it is expected that California schools are sharing with USDA their experience with plant-based milk alternatives.

Whole grains: Current whole grain regulations require that at least 80 percent of the weekly grains offered in the school lunch and breakfast programs be whole grain-rich, defined as containing at least 50% whole grain ingredients. Two rules are being considered. The first would maintain the current regulation while the second would require whole grain-rich products four out of five school days and allow enriched, non-whole grain products one day a week.

A high proportion of grain-based foods are made only with ingredients of plant origin, so this regulation has only minimal impact on plant-based declarations.

Sodium: Current regulations require school breakfasts to meet transitional sodium limits of no more than 640 mg per weekly meal average for high school students, with lower limits for children in elementary and middle school. Sodium limits for school lunches are being phased in with one set of average weekly meal limits in effect as of July 2022 and a more stringent set of limits in effect starting July 2023. The new regulations propose to require additional 10% drops in sodium limits for lunch beginning in school years 2025, 2027, and 2029 for breakfast beginning in school years 2025 and 2027. USDA hopes that the phased schedule will allow manufacturers enough time to reformulate their products.

In 2022, plant-based burger alternatives contained approximately 300-600 mg sodium, depending on the brand and serving size. Products with higher sodium levels could push a meal well above the average sodium limit, depending on sodium content of other meal components. Innovation in product formulations, along with wider use of global salt-free seasoning combinations and incorporation of flavorful, naturally lower-sodium ingredients and meal components, will enable manufacturers to comply with the more stringent requirements.

Nuts and seeds: In some situations, nut and seed butters are counted as only 50% of the meat/meat alternate component of the meal and must be served with another meat or meat alternate in order to be counted as a full meal. The new regulation proposes to allow nuts and seeds to be credited for a full portion of meat/meat alternate.

Competitive foods and “smart snacks”: Competitive foods and smart snacks are foods that are sold on the school campus but are not part of school meals. They are subject to limitations on calories, fat, saturated fat, total sugars, and sodium. Proposed regulations would exempt hummus from fat limitations of no more than 35% of total calories but would continue to limit its saturated fat to no more than 10% of total calories. The sesame paste and/or olive oil in hummus can push up the percentage of calories from fat; the new regulation would acknowledge that hummus is a wholesome, nutrient-dense food option despite the amount of fat.

Language changes: Proposed changes include referring to meat/meat alternatives as protein sources, to better reflect the variety of foods that can be offered within this meal component, including cheese, yogurt, eggs, tofu and soy products, nuts and seeds, and beans, peas, and lentils, in addition to meat products.

What’s next: Some school systems, like California and New York, embrace plant-based alternatives in school meals. New York City schools offer Plant-Powered Fridays with plant-based menu offerings often prepared from scratch in school kitchens. Foodservice provider Chartwells K-12 recently introduced its Veg-Out plant-based concept into school districts nationwide, with more than 100 options for children who are vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, plant-centric, or interested in trying different types of dishes. Other districts seek to limit plant-based options. A proposal brought before the Iowa State Legislature that would have banned meat and egg substitutes from school meals also brought up the importance of accurate labeling of meat alternative products. 

Plant-Based Food Alliance – We Need a Roadmap For The Plant-Based Food Industry

Uniting to promote the plant-based food industry at the top level is crucial to tackling the multiple challenges the sector faces. This was a strong message from the recent Plant-Based World Insider Talks – a forum for leading thought leaders in the sector. Marisa Heath is the Chief Executive of the Plant-Based Food Alliance, a UK non-profit coalition of organisations committed to driving forward plant-based. She told Insider Talks that lobbying government together is now vital to enable plant-based businesses to thrive.  

The overarching objective of the Alliance is to have a seat at the table for policy formation. Marisa Heath pointed out that recently plant-based was largely absent from policy forums and ignored from decision-making, compared to the huge influence that animal agriculture has in government circles: “We all know the livestock industry has been the main influencer of food policy. They have strong connections in the government and have been very effective in lobbying. There are also elements of resistance to plant-based food, with some narratives that we’re undermining British farming, telling people what they shouldn’t eat, and pushing highly processed foods that lack the nutritional value of meat and dairy. These false narratives have been built up by the animal industry.”  

This has led to specific threats for the plant-based industry: “Now that we are out of Europe, the reform bill is looking at what legislation to keep, bin or amend. This is a huge risk. The government are considering what to do about dairy descriptors. If they want to stop using phrases like plant-based alternative to mozzarella or misspellings such as Mylk that will be problematic. Changes to nutritional labelling could also have huge ramifications for our sector.”  

Despite these challenges, the Plant Based Food Alliance has a strategy for change: “When I started in government over 18 years ago, I worked in the environment and animal welfare arena. Back then, it was considered really niche, and we had very little influence. It’s changed recently. We’ve had strong outcomes: lots of new legislation, strong engagement with industry and the Department for Business and Trade, and new funding initiatives for alternative proteins from UK Research and Innovation. We’ve started to have positive conversations with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). I think it’s starting to happen because, as a sector, we are coming together. We also have NGOs who are putting pressure on the government to make changes to food systems.”  

Marisa Heath believes the best way to influence is to prove that plant-based food is of value to the government. “The more I’m in this arena, the more I think we solve so many problems for the government. We can solve issues around net zero, land management issues, air pollution, nature recovery, health, economic growth, and innovation. Plant-based food creates jobs and economic growth. We have some government funds for alternative proteins, but we need much more access to funding.”    

An important part of the Alliance’s strategy, and an immediate priority, is building a roadmap. Marisa Heath says it is time for the plant-based sector to up its game: “The meat industry has done very well in creating strategies and has a clear roadmap. We don’t yet have this in the plant-based industry. The government is influenced by those who know the system, and the animal industry does. It has benefited from the government having subsidised them and told the public to buy their products. I understand for plant-based businesses, government engagement doesn’t return quick money. But government influence will deliver big time in the long run. If we have a long-term vision, we can get immense returns.”     

One area where plant-based businesses would benefit from a roadmap is public procurement. The public sector spends about 2.4bn per year procuring food and catering services and the Alliance is calling for much more plant-based food purchased for offices, hospitals, prisons, and schools. They would also like to see land use shifted from livestock production to plant-based so that companies can get the ingredients they need from the UK. “We need the government to start nudging the public away from meat and dairy and letting them know that plant-based food is healthy and nutritious. We need to really push that into the mainstream.”  

Maris Heath also believes that better collaboration with the meat industry would be helpful.  

“I’ve worked across both sectors as I used to work in animal health and welfare in the meat and dairy industry. My view is that we should approach them and say we can solve your problems. You’ve just got to stop denying the problems and get down to the facts, and we can help you. We know that lots of companies are diversifying. Companies like Danone and Pilgrim are working across the space. We’ve got to have honest grown-up conversations with them. We’re all on the same side because it’s about the future of our planet. We need to work together. We’re very keen to have conferences on farming, for example, inviting the NFU and saying stop acting like we don’t exist. Come and speak to us because we’re producing food as well. We need to reach across and say let’s solve the problems together.” 

Plant Based Treaty: Putting Food Systems at the Forefront of Tackling Climate Change

Over 1000 businesses across all continents have endorsed the Plant-Based Treaty. In less than two years almost 400 companies in Europe, and over 300 in the US have signed up. These include many household names familiar to the Plant Based World community such as Vivera, Tofurkey, Heura and Bosh!

Launched in August 2021, the treaty is a grassroots campaign to putfood systems at the forefront of tackling climate change. Local governments can endorse the treaty in the same way they can declare a climate emergency. It is not legally binding but is a commitment to supporting plant-based initiatives such as carbon labelling, meat-free menus, and creating a pathway for growing plant-based eating. 

The treaty is modelled on the Fossil Fuel Treaty which addressed the Paris Agreement’s and subsequent COPs’ failure to include the phasing out of fossil fuels in written agreements. The plant based Treaty team were active at COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh in November 2022, calling on world leaders to begin a sustainable and just transition this decade to avert climate catastrophe. At the previous COP 26 in Glasgow they published a free guide to vegan food in Glasgow for delegates and visitors.  

Nicola Harris, Director of Communications for Plant Based Treaty says she is delighted that so many companies are on board. She explained that the campaign grew from local to international level organically: “We are from the animal save movement and set this up as a standalone campaign. It meant we could leverage our network of activists around the world. That’s how we’ve been able to spread to all continents through our existing network.  

We send letters to businesses and go onto the High Street door to door and speak to owners about the plant-based treaty. Many of these now display posters to promote it. With the big companies: Tofurkey, Vivera and Linda McCartney foods, they just endorsed the treaty themselves without any contact from us. We have been getting quite a bit of media coverage and good reach on social media, and word has been getting around. So that has attracted support.”  

It is not just vegan businesses that are endorsing the treaty: “McCartney foods is vegetarian, not fully vegan, but there is an acknowledgement that we need to shift in that direction. With endorsements from individuals less than half of signers are vegan. Many are omnivores and sign because they know that things must change and are happy to sign as part of their journey to change their diet.”  

Businesses are also crucial as partners and ambassadors for spreading the word. “We really love partnering with businesses and are always looking for new partnerships. We have a partnership with vegan review app Happy Cow, and they’ve helped promote the treaty through their network. We’ve partnered with Veg Fest in the UK, and they’ve helped us with newsletters, and invited us to talk on panels. Then equally we’ve helped promote their events. Ethical Tee Company is another example. They have helped us with getting merchandise printed and their owner has become one of our ambassadors, reaching out to businesses and celebrities.” 

A major focus has been getting regional and city governments on board, with 20 towns and cities around the world signing up so far. The biggest US city to sign is Los Angeles, where the city council unanimously passed a resolution to endorse the treaty in October 2022. In India 15 cities have signed up. In January 2023 Edinburgh became the first European capital city to join the campaign.  

City endorsement has great potential to engage businesses in the movement even further. As cities make plans for implementing the treaty the expertise of plant-based businesses will be needed to enable the transition.  

Nicola Harris explains: “Edinburgh City Council is now looking at implementation and how to transition their catering services, to make plant-based food more accessible in council buildings, universities, schools, care homes and at public events. Edinburgh has more than 120 schools so just changing that sector will make a big impact. They want their catering companies to provide more plant-based options on a budget and we’ve been talking to them about offering training for caterers, so it is an opportunity for plant-based entrepreneurs with that knowledge to get involved.” 

There are plenty of good reasons why all plant-based businesses should support the treaty. It is a way of demonstrating strong values and doing something practical about the climate emergency. Nicola Harris adds: “By banding together we’ve got much more power and influence. We see that with animal agriculture, that they have lobbies and they’re very powerful, because they work together. If plant-based businesses can team up and have a louder voice, it’s going to help influence things in Parliament. For any plant-based businesses not already on board please get in touch and arrange a meeting and find out how you can support us.”  

Government Support Drives Plant-Based Innovation in Denmark

Denmark is well known for its traditional non-plant-based produce, with bacon, butter and cheeses exported throughout the world. However, Denmark is fast becoming a leader in plant-based foods thanks to government support for innovation that includes investment and solution-focused partnerships between the government, the private sector and NGOs.  

Danes are typically meat lovers, with less than 1% of the population identifying as vegan and only 2.3% as vegetarian. But there is evidence of a willingness to change. In November 2022 a University of Copenhagen study asked 3000 Danes about their eating habits. While 80% of respondents said they had eaten meat the night before, 43% said they were reducing meat consumption. Getting consumers to turn those good intentions into daily eating habits is a challenge that the government is taking on. They have introduced a range of initiatives backed up with funding, to help businesses make plant-based food that is tasty, convenient, and affordable for Danish families.  

The government is motivated by a desire to encourage Danes to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. The political majority is in favour of a green transition and is committed to a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. A binding agreement was endorsed by all parties in October 2021. Promoting plant-based eating is a central element of this goal and the government has a national strategy with clear targets. It has committed €160million to support and develop plant-based food – one of the biggest public investments in the sector globally. It will give Farmers a financial incentive to grow plant-based protein crops for human consumption. The government is also funding support for fermentation and cultivated meats. Other initiatives include reduced VAT on fruit and vegetables and developing carbon labelling to help consumers choose food with a lower impact on the climate, the first country to do so. At the time of writing the labelling is in the design stage with discussions about whether a traffic light system or a best-in-class model for different categories would be most effective.  

As well as finance there are structures and organisations that support the growth of the plant-based sector. The Danish Agriculture and Food Council share a vision of producing food that leaves a smaller climate footprint. The government has set up working groups that gather businesses, farmers, scientists, NGOs and consumer groups to iron out conflicts when they arise. Denmark’s influential Plant-Based Business Association, the Plantebranchen, is the largest of its kind in Europe. The ninety members include major producers such as Nestle, Alpro and Oatly as well as small start-ups.  

The Danish government and a host of businesses were solidly represented at Plant Based World Expo in London in November 2022.  The UK Ambassador for Denmark, Rene Dinesen, and the Minister and Minister Counsellor for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Esben Egede Rasmussen gave talks outlining the Danish approach. They explained that governmental support for the green transition is key to solving both environmental and social issues and that changing eating habits is an important part of that.  With so much encouragement it is not surprising that there are some truly innovative plant-based products emerging from Denmark. Here are some of them.  


The company’s organic butter alternative is already on supermarket shelves across Europe. But as we learned at Plant-Based World Expo, they make so much more, including oat, soy and rice drinks, yogurts, meat replacements, and ice cream.  

Calvi-art , by Jens Møller 

Jens Moller and team caviar-substitutes out of seaweed. It comes in three varieties each with a different colour: Cavi-art, made from kelp, a replacement for fish roe ideal for tube caviar or served on blinis, Tosago, designed for sushi and poke bowls, and Food-art, unique seaweed pearls in flavours like balsamic or lemon that add taste and visual interest sprinkled on salads or desserts.  

Aliga Microalgae 

A core food ingredient made from freshwater algae. Grown in fermenters using precision fermentation techniques, the chlorophyll is removed, changing the colour and flavour of the final product. The result is Chlorella, a superfood rich in protein and nutrients that can be added to a wide range of foods. The Chlorella comes in different colours for different applications. For example, white Chlorella can be used as a vegan binder or emulsifier or foaming agents. It can be used in meat and fish substitutes and in baking. Chlorella can also be used in dietary supplements in powder or tablet form.  


A food-tech start-up creating ingredients to make plant-based food taste better, by applying fermentation and other techniques to Danish-grown beans. The aim is to satisfy the umami craving that meat eaters often get when eating plant-based, making it easier for consumers to make the switch.  


Nisco makes ingredients for plant-based food manufacturers from pea protein. Their research and development department helps brands create the best plant protein for their product. They produce extruded pea meals and texturized pea protein in different particle sizes for use in sausages, burgers, meatballs, and ready meals. The protein can also be used in plant-based dairy.  

Organic Plant Protein  

The company makes organic textured protein products in different shapes and sizes from peas and fava beans. They produce protein concentrates using a dry mechanical process. The textured protein comes dry and can be used in burgers and as mince in ready meals.  

The Birch Factory 

Birch sap has been used as a drink in Europe and Asia for centuries and is known for its health properties. The Birch Factory harvests the sap and makes organic birch water in different flavours, still and sparkling. It comes in PET or glass bottles or in ecological recyclable cardboard containers. Look out for Birch tonic water launching soon.  

Foss Analytical 

Foss provides analytical services to food producers. Their instruments measure the fat, protein, solids, moisture composition and other measurables in plant-based foods. This means companies can optimise their recipes for quality, texture and mouth feel and make sure they are consistently producing the most realistic and appetising food possible.  

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Plant Based World Pulse is a go-to resource for the plant-based industry. Offering high-value insights, educational content, and the latest information year-round, it compliments the annual industry events Plant Based World Expo North America in New York City and Plant Based World Expo Europe in London.