ENCINITAS — Michael Christensen is entering his senior year at La Costa Canyon High School, marking 12 years of underwhelming public school lunches.
Christensen, like many of his classmates, has grown accustomed to pepperoni pizza with small amounts of meat and cheese that is sometimes burnt. For plant-based options, his school offers a bun that he can only describe as a hard square of compressed wheat.
“It’s not great quality food,” Christensen said. “Not in terms of nutrition or in terms of even taste.”
After experiencing food insecurity when he was younger, Christenson wanted to see public access to food that is higher quality, sustainable and more inclusive. Last year, he started talking with the school’s principal and nutritional programs about his concerns.
As he got more into it, Christenson learned he wasn’t alone.
The Youth Steering Committee at the Healthy Future Students & Earth Coalition is a group of about a dozen young people across America working to advance legislation that would incorporate plant-based food policies in schools and federal programs and shift U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines to support plant-based food and milks, program coordinator Chelsea Velez said.
“You hear about how dairy and meat industry lobbyists are trying to change the laws to favor their industries, but you don’t really realize the extent unless you look at the law systems in place and the policies in place,” Christenson said.
For example, USDA guidelines on school lunches don’t limit red and processed meats despite studies showing heavy meat consumption can be unhealthy. The USDA also changed its standards in 2018 to allow schools to serve more sodium and flavored milk, reversing some of the changes from the Obama-era Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act would establish a pilot grant program for school districts to provide plant-based food and milk options.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) introduced the act in 2021, but it stalled. Velázquez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) reintroduced the act in May.
In July, Christenson and the rest of the committee went to Washington D.C. to advocate for the act and hold meetings with USDA officials, congresspeople and even the executive office of the president. They also met with Bowman to thank him for helping introduce the bill.
“They were very grateful for our work, not only specifically for what we’re trying to promote here, but also for getting involved in government at a young age,” Christenson said.
Christenson said it’s refreshing to be around the Youth Steering Committee because they understand the importance of adding sustainable food options in schools. Some have been impacted by food insecurity, health issues and homelessness, but working together, they’ve been able to see an impact.
Last year, the Youth Steering Committee held the first youth-focused plant-based listening session with the USDA to advocate for opportunities for youth input at the USDA. This year, they continued that work and organized a total of 39 youth-led legislative meetings, Velez said.
At the local level, it can be more difficult. Local schools and districts have smaller budgets for food programs, and introducing new meals involves a lot of collaboration plus time to test them in small batches.
“I’m not unaware of or ignoring the limitations in terms of budget or supplies or anything like that of the nutrition services,” Christenson said. “I know that they’re working really hard, and I appreciate what they do. … My goal is just to keep working with them and keep improving the system, keep trying to implement healthier, sustainable and all around just better plant-based options in school menus.”
Christenson is workshopping plant-based meals with local chefs and coordinating with principals and kitchen staff, work that involves a lot of emails.
His dreams aren’t too lofty. Christenson said he’d like to see something like bruschetta or some good soups at lunch because they’re healthy and cost-effective.
“Plant-based food is not just an environmental thing; it’s our right to have healthy, allergy alternative, religious, cultural, and nutritional choices for every one of us,” Christenson said. “ Food is important to everyone, it plays an important cultural role in society. By moving in this direction, we are including everyone.