Voices: If we care about our children’s future, all school dinners should be vegan

Why should teachers care about Veganuary? Well, in 2021, the BBC’s Good Food Nation survey found that 8 per cent of children were following a vegan diet and of those who weren’t, 15 per cent would like to. With more than nine million pupils in England alone, there are more and more vegan students in schools.

Schools often don’t realise this, but they have legal obligations in relation to their vegan students, child protection risks to consider and child protection benefits to appreciate. What do I mean?

Ethical veganism is protected under the Equality Act 2010 as a philosophical belief. State schools in Britain have a public sector equality duty to act inclusively in this regard. It’s still common for schools to say they can’t provide meals for vegans, blaming their caterers. However, the equality obligations are borne by the school, specifically the governors who are accountable for breaches. The vegan menu needs to be balanced, varied and tasty – just like the standard menu.

Helpful resources are available from The Vegan Society, and beyond lesson planning, it’s important to consider relationships. If a pupil is teased by their teacher for being vegan, that’s direct discrimination under the Equality Act. That may sound unlikely, but in our survey of 252 vegan pupils, 73 per cent had been teased for their vegan beliefs at school, and 42 per cent had been bullied. In both cases, in one in four instances it was teachers or other school staff who were the perpetrators.

This is linked to cognitive dissonance – the psychological reaction to being made aware that one holds two conflicting beliefs. If one simultaneously holds the beliefs “I love animals” and “it’s OK to eat animals”, then when a situation arises that forces those two beliefs to the forefront of our thinking, the tension that results can make us feel stressed, irritated and unhappy.

Unless we resolve the tension by changing our beliefs or behaviour, it’s quite normal to blame those feelings on something else entirely – all without realising we are doing it.

The easiest target for that blame is the individual “causing” the conflict: the vegan pupil who may not have even spoken, but triggers friction by the simple fact of their vegan identity. Helping school communities understand veganism and clarifying their anti-bullying policies reduces these risks. But what about that child protection benefit I mentioned?

Teachers have child protection drilled into them, but their choices at each meal could be putting more children in danger than they ever work with. Most won’t realise that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transport network. They will likely have given lessons on how public transport is a greener way to get to school than using a car, but may not have thought about educating their students on the environmental impacts of their meal choices.

UNICEF has declared that one billion children are at extremely high risk from the climate crisis. How does veganism relate? Farmland takes up half of all habitable land. Animal agriculture is inefficient – using 77 per cent of the world’s farmland to create animal products accounting for only 18 per cent of our calories. It takes a lot of plants to feed the animals. By contrast, plants are efficient – taking 23 per cent of farmland to supply 82 per cent of our calories.

If we switched to a plant-based food system, we could both substantially reduce annual emissions (especially damaging methane from cattle and sheep) and rewild three-quarters of all agricultural land – an area equivalent to the EU, China, Australia and the USA combined – drawing down between 9 and 13 years’ worth of global carbon emissions.

Research indicates that even if we were to end fossil fuel production tomorrow, we would still breach our global warming targets through emissions from animal agriculture alone. To safeguard our children’s futures, we all need to shift our diets in a plant-based direction, and school meals are a powerful way to do this.

Choosing plant-forward options for school meals could save the equivalent annual emissions of all 150,000 people in Oxford. But the indirect benefits are even bigger; modelling earth-friendly choices pupils can take forward through their lives. Your vegan pupils are leading the way – in a direction that protects us all.

Ruth Jenkins is the founder of Vegan-Inclusive Education