The rise of plant-based foods means that finding tasty and healthy vegetarian options has become much simpler for those who want to enjoy a climate-friendly and animal-friendly meal. However, as 17-year-old UK student Katherine Cattermole has found, there’s still some way to go to ensure that schools can offer the types of food that the next generation want. Here, Katherine outlines her experience of growing up on a plant-based diet.
I’ve been vegetarian since I was six years old, and have just entered my second year in Sixth Form in the UK. Given the media’s emphasis on climate change, and my generation’s high awareness of the issue, I am surprised that so few of my peers opt to eat a plant-based diet. A simple internet search quickly reveals that a vegetarian diet can contribute 2.5 times less carbon emissions than one that includes meat.
So, what is stopping young people from making the switch?
According to the latest School Meals Report, half of UK children are eating a school meal every day, so the quality of veggie options has a major influence on whether a young person chooses to adopt a more climate-friendly plant-based diet. It’s very important to ensure that the same amount of care and attention that is taken when creating meat options is also put into the veggie ones.
While thousands of schools across the country are excelling at this (check out ProVeg UK’s School Plates programme, for example), my own experience of vegetarian school meals is sadly not a positive one. During my time in school, I’ve not had as much choice as my meat-eating peers and the options that I’ve sampled tend to be a bit lacking in flavour. Of course, this is not a reflection on vegetarian food in general – just an example, perhaps, of the need for extra guidance and support for schools to improve their plant-based offerings.
I have also found that many school meals have meat added unnecessarily, when the dishes could easily be just as tasty, and perhaps healthier, if meat were to be removed from them. Processed meat is a known cause of cancer, and yet Mac ‘n’ Cheese is usually served with pieces of ham, just like margherita pizza is often scattered with pepperoni. I think it would be perfectly feasible for more of these dishes to be made vegetarian, with meat as an optional extra instead. Having to make a conscious decision to add meat, along with the supplementary cost of doing so, might even encourage students to think about the wider cost of the food they choose. Our food choices are effectively a means of choosing our own carbon footprint – and young people should be encouraged to make healthier, more sustainable choices wherever we can.
The same problems exist in pubs and restaurants. I’ve found that, unless a restaurant specifically caters to vegans and vegetarians, plant-based options often lack the creativity and attention that is given to their meaty counterparts. It’s hardly surprising that many people will therefore choose the meat options over the veggie ones – especially if they sound less appealing and are more or less the same price.
Other challenges can also arise at home. Many young people rely on their families to buy ingredients and cook meals, which can make following a more plant-based diet very tricky if everyone isn’t on board. While I’d encourage all young people to get cooking from a young age if possible, this really does highlight the need for better veggie options in schools. It might be someone’s only opportunity to try these kinds of foods. If more care is put into the creation and cooking of veggie school dinners, we could inspire a whole generation of young people to adopt a more climate-forward diet!
There is also a huge opportunity to further inspire children in the classroom, by including more meat-free recipes and education in Food Technology lessons. Teaching kids the skills to cook their own plant-based food will show them just how easy it can be to reduce their food emissions. Similarly, many teenagers are unaware that you can meet all your nutritional needs when following a plant-based diet – you don’t need meat to get enough protein. More myth-busting is needed in the classroom regarding the perceived downsides of vegetarian food in order to overcome children’s reluctance to change.
It is entirely possible – and not expensive – to offer good, tasty vegetarian meals: ones that can be augmented with meat on demand, rather than serving predominantly meat-heavy menus with the odd veggie alternative. Encouraging children to choose more sustainable, plant-based options should be a priority instead of providing a second option for those few students following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Better education about the nutrient content of plant-based meals is urgently needed in order to counter the prevailing attitudes towards vegetarianism in my generation, and ensure that our food choices have a real impact in the fight against climate change.
Katherine Cattermole is a 17-year-old student from the UK, looking to study environmental geography at university. She has been eating a plant-based diet since the age of six and is passionate about encouraging young people to take an active role against climate change.