The plant-based movement has grown from grassroots to mainstream. It’s being promoted at all levels, and school meals are now at the center of efforts to adopt plant-based eating patterns.
The school environment is a focal point for influencing students’ food choices and inspiring sustainability in an era of climate change. As these shifts occur, there is opportunity for the dairy community to emphasize the unique and essential package of nutrients offered by dairy foods while highlighting the importance of dairy foods for early childhood development and in sustainable eating patterns.
As we engage in dialogue around plant-based eating, it’s important to recognize that plant-based does not need to be plant-only. Dietary guidelines that restrict single nutrients or foods without focusing on diet quality could unintentionally limit intake of nutritious foods like dairy and other animal-sourced foods, which nourish children and communities. Animal and plant foods should not be thought of as competing entities but rather as synergistic food sources that provide different though complementary nutritional, social, economical, and environmental benefits.
For children, dairy foods are especially important, as young people have nutritional needs that differ from the overall population. What’s more, many young people rely on school meal programs, including breakfast, lunch, and more, for access to nutrient-dense foods such as dairy foods, making school meals critically important to supporting healthy students and communities. Research also shows that eating patterns established at an early age influence not only academic and lifelong success but also food and beverage choices made throughout life.
As discussions from all levels continue around environmental sustainability, the dairy community is working to broaden the definition of sustainability to include the nutritional needs of people as well as economic, cultural, and other sociological factors. The concept of sustainable nutrition is gaining traction across the globe as recognition grows for the importance of supporting the health of people through nutrition while also protecting planetary health. At the same time, the dairy community has a positive environmental sustainability story to tell, aiming to become carbon neutral, optimize water usage, and improve water quality by 2050.
Growing support for and adoption of plant-based eating patterns means that it is important for the dairy community to stay active in discussions around plant-based foods in the school environment and advocate for the importance of dairy foods for children’s health and as part of healthy, sustainable eating patterns. By doing so, we can ensure milk and dairy foods have a place within school meals well into the future.