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Plant-based Meal Options in CNPs

Includes definitions, background, health benefit information, how to take action, resources, online trainings, and policy guidance for program operators participating in the Child Nutrition Programs and interested in offering plant-based meals.


Many people are choosing plant-based and vegetarian meals whether it is one day a week, one meal a day, or an entirely vegetarian diet. There are many reasons for choosing this option including health benefits and the impact on the environment. As a result, Child Nutrition Programs (CNP) sponsors are encouraged to offer plant-based and vegetarian meals as part of their regular menu offerings. Because there are several types of vegetarian diets, including those who eat eggs and dairy and those that eat an entirely plant-based vegan diet, it is important for CNP sponsors to consider their student population when planning their menus. CNP sponsors may be surprised how popular plant-based vegetarian menu items are with nonvegetarians as well. In fact, it has been reported that school districts that have implemented Meatless Monday have had an increase in participation and a reduction in meal cost on that day!

In California, Assembly Concurrent Resolution 16 (ACR 16) was passed in 2003. Referred to as the California Healthy School Lunch Resolution, the ACR 16 urges school food authorities (SFAs) to develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that include plant-based vegetarian entrees. The California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division (NSD) is committed to working toward the goals of ACR 16, to make California a leader in creating and promoting healthier, environmentally sustainable, plant-based vegetarian school meals and providing nutrition education resources that include multicultural eating patterns and vegetarian/vegan eating patterns.

Definitions on Vegetarianism

Before program operators can address the needs of their vegetarian populations, it is important to know that there are many types of vegetarians, depending on what they exclude from their diet. They include:

  • Lacto-vegetarian
  • Ovo-vegetarian
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian
  • Flexitarian (semi-vegetarian)
  • Vegan
  • Plant-Based

Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but avoid meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and egg derivatives such as egg whites or albumin.

Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but avoid meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, but no meat, poultry, or fish.

Flexitarians (semi-vegetarians) follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating plan, but occasionally eat meat, poultry, or fish.

Vegans or strict vegetarians do not eat any meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, or other dairy products. Vegans frequently avoid foods that include animal products as ingredients, foods flavored with meat extracts, baked items made with eggs or butter, and foods prepared with gelatin made with animal bones or casein (from milk). Vegans also avoid foods processed with animal products.

Plant-based is a diet based on foods derived from plants with a focus on whole foods, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fruits and the elimination of processed foods. It excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and foods processed with animal products.


The ACR 16: Nutrition: Vegetarian School Lunches (Nation), Resolution Chapter 62, Statutes of 2003 encourages SFAs to offer plant-centered vegetarian entrée options to meet the needs of their student population and to provide nutrition educational resources that include multicultural eating patterns and vegetarian/vegan eating patterns.

Healthy Kids, Happy Planet! External link opens in new window or tab. sponsored ACR 16 and a broad spectrum of organizations endorsed the resolution, including the American Cancer Society, California State Parent–Teachers Association, California School Boards Association, California Association of Student Councils, and the Animal Legislative Action Network.

The ACR 16 calls for daily optional plant-centered vegetarian meals to improve student health, protect the environment, and meet the needs of students who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for any reason. Specifically, ACR 16 urges the CDE to:

  • Develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that would provide daily, optional, plant-centered school lunches, prepared without meat and dairy products, and offered with a similar standard for variety, cycle of repeat, and availability as entrees with meat and dairy

  • Encourage school districts to voluntarily phase in these menu changes

  • Include information about multicultural and vegetarian and vegan eating patterns in the nutrition education materials and instruction

In November 2011, the CDE submitted the Vegetarian School Lunches report (PDF) to the Governor, the Legislature, and the Legislative Analyst’s office on efforts made to offer optional vegetarian school lunches. The report includes the full text of ACR 16, information on vegetarian diets and their health benefits, and statewide efforts to support plant-centered meal service and nutrition education in schools. The report also highlights some school districts that offer plant-centered meals.

The CDE is committed to supporting ACR 16 and to working closely with the program operators in the CNP to offer healthy plant-centered meals and nutrition education resources.

Health Benefits

Compared to nonvegetarians, vegetarians tend to have a healthier weight and lower risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Vegetarian diets may include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fiber, and phytochemicals, which may protect humans from cancers and other diseases. Therefore, providing vegetarian options can offer health benefits to all students.

Milk Substitutes

If student(s) participating in the CNPs need fluid milk substitutes for disability or nondisability reasons, a written statement is required by statute and regulation when the fluid milk substitute is being served as part of the reimbursable meal.

Substitutes for Disability Reasons

  • CNP sponsors must offer fluid milk substitutes to students for: (1) disabilities, or (2) medical needs when a state-licensed healthcare professional (licensed physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner) completes and signs the CNP-925. The CNP-925 (CDE Medical Statement to Request Special Meals and/or Accommodations Form) is located in the Download Forms Section of the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System (CNIPS).

  • In any of the CNPs, if a child needs a fluid milk substitute due to a disability, it must be accommodated once the program sponsor is provided the appropriate form or a written medical statement that addresses the need for a milk substitute and has been completed and signed by a state licensed healthcare professional. If a medical statement does not fully explain the modification needed, the program sponsor should immediately contact the child’s parent or guardian for guidance and ask the family to provide an amended medical statement as soon as possible. However, clarification of the medical statement should not delay the program sponsor from providing a meal modification. Program sponsors should follow the portion of the medical statement that is clear and unambiguous to the greatest extent possible, while obtaining the additional information.

Substitutes for Nondisability Reasons

  • Program operators are given the discretion to offer fluid milk substitutes to students for: (1) medical, and (2) special dietary needs, when the parent or guardian completes, signs, and returns the SNP-26: Parental Request for Fluid Milk Substitution for School-age Children. The SNP 26 is located in the Download Forms Section of the CNIPS. Special dietary needs include those accommodations related to religious or moral convictions, or personal preference. An electronic signature is acceptable on this form. For information on the program operator's role in providing milk substitutions, visit the CDE Final Rule: Fluid Milk Substitutions web page.

  • If a child has a nondisability reason for a fluid milk substitute, such as personal preference or religious need, program sponsors have the discretion to offer a fluid milk substitute once they are provided the appropriate form which has been completed and signed by a child’s parent or guardian. For nondisability, the milk substitute that is offered must meet the nutritional specifications identified on the Nutrient Standards tab of the CDE’s Milk Requirements in the CNP web page. For more information and to access the above-referenced forms regarding a milk substitution, visit the CDE’s Milk Requirements in the CNP web page.

  • Nondairy beverages offered as fluid milk substitutes, such as plant-based milk alternatives, may be offered in the CNPs. If provided to children for nondisability reasons, the plant-based milk alternatives must be nutritionally equivalent to fluid milk and provide the required nutrients identified on the Nutrient Standards tab of the CDE’s Milk Requirements in the CNP web page.

For detailed information regarding milk requirements in CNPs, such as requirements for types of milks offered, nutrient standards for fluid milk and substitutes, policy guidance, and frequently asked questions, visit the Milk Requirements in the CNP web page.

Take Action

The NSD urges all CNP Operators to consider the needs of their population as they plan their menus, including those who are vegetarians or vegans. Some recommended action steps are:

  • Identify leadership, including foodservice directors and key stakeholders (students, parents, school boards, industry leaders and advocacy organizations).

  • Review the Definitions tab of this webpage to learn about the different types of vegetarians/vegans or those who prefer plant-based diets. Review the Definitions tab of this webpage to learn about the different types of vegetarians/vegans.

  • Survey student needs regarding plant-based meals

  • Review the Trainings tab of this webpage to view available trainings on vegetarian/vegan diets.

  • Consider implementing one meatless day weekly, like a Meatless Monday or a Lean and Green day or a daily meatless entrée option!

  • Review the Resources tab of this web page to download quantity recipes, cookbooks, posters, stickers, and other available resources to support your efforts

  • Provide nutrition education lessons, available under the Resources tab of this web page, regarding:

    • Unfamiliar or new foods (beans, tofu, and quinoa)
    • Multicultural eating patterns including plant-based foods
    • Vegetarian eating patterns.

  • Assess new menu items for acceptance through taste testing and recipe evaluations to ensure a positive effect on participation in your meal programs.

  • Create a fun day for tasting new foods (i.e., Taste it Tuesday).

  • Promote new vegetarian meals in the cafeteria by giving out samples of the new meal the day it is served. 

  • Seek assistance in implementing your vegetarian meal options:

    • Forward Food External link opens in new window or tab.
      The Humane Society offers several resources including plant-based toolkits, guides, and on-demand webinars.

    • Let's Eat Healthy: Professional Development + Advising External link opens in new window or tab.
      The Dairy Council of California’s Local Community Nutrition Advisers can help assist with your smarter lunchrooms effort to increase consumption of new and healthy food options and create a culture of wellness at school and in the community.

  • Educate, get support and buy-in, and use the following to support your efforts as advocates:

    • Parent-Teacher Organizations
    • School Board members
    • Teachers
    • Staff
    • Students
    • Local School Wellness Policy (LSWP) committee

  • Document your success in the school district LSWP. Sample Language could be:

    “The district will develop nutritionally sound school lunch menu plans that will provide daily optional plant-centered school lunches. The district will also provide nutrition educational materials and instruction including information about multicultural eating patterns and vegetarian/vegan eating patterns.”

  • Share nutrition education materials with parents/guardians through emails, flyers, handouts, or newsletters or website.

  • Post your new menus on your school district website.

  • Phase in plant-based entrees over time to increase variety and frequency of availability of vegetarian/vegan entrees (including those prepared without eggs and dairy products).

  • Share your successes with other school districts.


Nutrition Education Lessons
Promotional Videos
General Resources

Nutrition Education Lessons

Resource Grades Description

Healthy Kids, Happy Planet!
Daily Scoop web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Grade K–8
A series of fun, consistent and easy to understand daily nutrition tips for kids, grades K–8. Added to the daily school wide announcements or a teacher's opening routine, the Daily Scoop elevates plant-strong nutrition education to a daily practice, without adding more than 30 seconds to a teacher's busy routine! ​​​​​​​​​​​​To sign up for the Daily Scoop, use the Free e-delivery of the Daily Scoop form External link opens in new window or tab..
Grade K­–5
"Nourishing Students Enrichment Activities for grades K–5" helps children understand where California fruits and vegetables come from and how they reach the table, including the phases of planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, and eating. The activities in Nourishing Students make after-school, out-of-school, and summer programs fun and memorable. These activities help children participate meaningfully in experiences that promote their health and broaden their understanding of food, the people who produce it, and its relationship to the natural world.

The Center for Ecoliteracy
Abundant California External link opens in new window or tab. curriculum

Grade 3–5

Curriculum developed for grades 3–5 about the food system through the lens of California crops. The classroom lessons connect to learning standards and reinforce the excellent work that is being done by our food service leaders throughout the state to serve more freshly prepared food. Lessons can be downloaded free of charge and used any time.


Resource Description

The Forward Food web page offers free quantity recipes and menus for Kindergarten through grade 12.

Chef Ann Foundation
The Lunch Box Plant Forward Recipes External link opens in new window or tab.


Chef Ann Foundation tests all recipes on The Lunch Box in school kitchens and lunchrooms. Students have tasted and approved these recipes, so you can feel confident serving them in your lunchroom. The recipes include the ingredients, instructions, and contribution to the meal pattern!

Healthy Kids, Happy Planet!
Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Offers recipes that go with the fun, easy and free nutrition education resource for teachers to highlight each Cool Bean of the Month.

Institute of Child Nutrition Recipe Box External link opens in new window or tab.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) resource for standardized recipes for Child Nutrition Programs.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food
Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.

Offers quantity plant-based recipes for school lunches.

The Vegetarian Resource Group 
Vegan Recipes web page External link opens in new window or tab.

The Vegetarian Resource Group provides quantity vegan recipes.

Promotional Videos

Resource Description

Vista Unified School District’s  
Fear Factor Taste Challenge video External link opens in new window or tab. (Video; 1:52)

The Fear Factor Taste Challenge is one of many ways to engage students in conversations about nutrition and inviting them to try a variety of foods! This video has a Halloween theme!

Rocket Surgeons
Broccoli Song YouTube video External link opens in new window or tab. (Video; 2:30)

This fun YouTube video can be used to get staff and kids excited about eating vegetables, especially broccoli!

General Resources

Resource Decription
A report that spotlights a growing movement of school districts using their massive purchasing power to provide plant-forward and climate-friendly food. The report shows how just one recipe shift can make a huge impact. The report, which is based on interviews with 35 school food professionals, provides valuable resources External link opens in new window or tab. and detailed strategies, examples, and best practices from 18 school districts on how to boost student participation rates and increase appreciation of healthier, plant-forward, climate-friendly food. For a quick summary, see the executive summaryExternal link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

Offers free resources to food service staff to support offering plant-based meals in schools including a plant-based product list, plant-based protein sources chart, K–12 cycle menus, a cost-savings analysis, and much more.

Healthy Kids, Happy Planet! Promotional postersExternal link opens in new window or tab.
Offers posters with plant positive messages featuring beans! Some posters include Plants are Powerful Food, Beans the Lean and Green Protein, Cool Beans, and more.

USDA Enjoy Vegetarian and Vegan MealsExternal link opens in new window or tab.

Provides tips on eating healthy as a vegetarian or vegan.
Provides information to help ensure all recommended nutrients are met.

Friends of the Earth
Scaling Up Healthy, Climate Friendly School Food
ResourcesExternal link opens in new window or tab.

Recipes, grants, and resources for Climate-friendly School Foodservice.

Online Trainings

Course Number Course Name Training Topic Target Audience
Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff
Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff
Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff
The Center for Nutrition and Schools

Serving Vegetarian Meals in School Nutrition Programs External link opens in new window or tab.

Menu Planning
Food Service Director and Staff

Policy Guidance

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the following policy memoranda related to offering plant-based options and accommodating disabilities. When merited, the CDE released a subsequent management bulletin (MB) following the USDA policy memoranda to include state specific policy guidance and further explain or clarify the topic.

Since being a vegetarian or vegan is a personal preference, not a disability, program operators are encouraged, but not required, to offer vegetarian or vegan entrées to meet student needs. The ACR 16 encourages frequent offering of plant-centered offerings on the lunch menu.

To view all MBs related to School Nutrition Programs, visit the CDE School Nutrition Programs MBs web page.


If you have any questions, please contact the CDE NSD by phone at 800-952-5609 or email your School Nutrition Program questions to

Subscribe to the School Nutrition Program Mailing List.

Follow @CDENutrition on Twitter.

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Monday, March 11, 2024
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