New Illinois Law Requires Plant-Based School Lunches

Beginning with the 2023-2024 academic year, Illinois K-12 students will find plant-based meals such as grain bowls and veggie burgers offered for lunch alongside the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, tacos, and pizza.

Illinois House Bill 4089, sponsored by Chicago state representative Cyril Nichols and Peoria state senator Dave Koehler and signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker, requires school districts to accommodate pupils who request plant-based or religious dietary-restricted options

“Some students may only be able to depend on one meal a day,” said Koehler in a statement. “It’s incredibly important for all students to have access to a well-rounded, nutritious meal during the school day that meets their dietary needs.”

Nichols said in a statement: “Well-rounded, nutritious meals of all kinds are vital to students’ ability to learn and succeed. Offering more healthy lunch options in our schools helps our students thrive.”

While we at PBNM are encouraged by the new bill, we recognize there may be some obstacles to fully achieving its sponsors’ laudable goals. First, all meals must meet federal nutrition guidelines. This should be a low hurdle to clear if the meals are prepared using whole food plant-based ingredients rather than hyper-processed ingredients like Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat. However, the bill allows each school district to determine what qualifies as a plant-based meal, so it behooves parents and students to voice their preferences.

Second, it isn’t yet clear as to how students will request a plant-based option. Again, this will undoubtedly vary from school district to school district and could be easily solved with an online form.

Finally, the Illinois law is at odds with current federal school meal program guidelines. The federal regulations state that participating districts and food providers “cannot discriminate against the drinking of cow’s milk before school, after school, on school grounds, or at any school-sponsored event.” It remains to be seen if the feds or a lobbying group such as the National Dairy Council challenges IHB 4089.

PBNM is working now on how we can assist governing bodies, students, parents, school food service managers, and administrators to make healthy whole food plant-based meals available to every Illinois student who wants them. Stay tuned!

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