Slow start for vegan lunches while campus food service surges

Anna Feng and Sophia Yang

While demand for school lunches at Palo Alto High School has tripled compared to pre-pandemic levels, newly introduced plant-based options are off to a slow start. Changes to the lunch menu were a result of a petition created by a group of students.

Senior Laura Lengre gets lunch at the Specialty Bar featuring vegan options at Palo Alto High School on March 9. This was the second Specialty Food Bar organized by Food Service staff. According to Palo Alto Unified School District Nutrition Director Alva Spence, school lunch has become more popular, but students are still choosing meat-based entrees.We served 200 Tostada Bowls on the Specialty Bar, but only 15 of them were plant-based,” Spence said. “We are feeding three times as many Paly students now than we did pre-pandemic.(Photo: Anna Feng)

According to Alva Spence, the Palo Alto Unified School District student nutrition director, the Food Service staff offer plant-based lunches for students at least three times a week. In addition, every other Wednesday features a Specialty Bar where students can customize their lunch with either meat or plant-based items.

Most of the students who eat with Paly Food Service choose the meat entrees over the plant-based entrees. After the first Specialty Bar, Food Service staff found that 148 students asked for the meat-based option, chicken rice bowls, while 10 students asked for the plant-based option, seasoned tempeh, according to Spence.

“There has been an increase in overall student meal participation, especially on Specialty Bar days, but it is being driven by meat-eating students and not students taking plant-based entrees,” Spence said.

Spence said despite the addition of vegan lunches, aimed at increasing access to school lunch for plant-based students, only around 2% of students have selected the vegan entrees.

“The number of students selecting the vegan entrees is extremely small,” Spence said. 

According to junior Margot Blanco, who helped start the petition for plant-based lunches, a possible cause of this lack of participation from plant-based students may have been due to a lack of awareness of the new additions to the lunch bar menu. 

“I mean, if you don’t know that there are vegan options there [at the lunch bar] then most students just aren’t going to gravitate towards ordering those,” Blanco said. “I think once students realize that, and once we actually promote these options and their incredible benefits, then they [plant-based lunches] are definitely a worthy investment.”

The addition of the Specialty Bar have also highlighted some other potential challenges for the Food Service staff.

“Students over-portion the toppings, fruit, and milk, causing a shortage of items for students further back in line,” Spence said. “Over-portioning is a cost, and the inconsistency of toppings available for all students will cause students to not want to participate over time.”

The shortage of food was noted by sophomore Lucianna Peralta, who usually gets school lunch every day.

“I usually get the meat entrees instead of the plant-based, and [at the Specialty Bar] not only was all the lettuce gone, but all the food bins were empty when I got my turn,” Peralta said.

Sophomore Sarah Sheaffer said she did not face any issues with a lack of food.

“I can’t speak for other experiences, since I wasn’t too late to the line, but I thought it [the lunch bar] worked well,” Sheaffer said. “There was enough for everyone I saw, and my only concern was the possible COVID-19 risk of everyone using the same utensils to choose toppings.”

After the second time hosting the Specialty Bar, Food Service staff have discussed making some changes to the program to make it easier for staff to provide vegan options for students, according to Spence. 

“We are considering changing the day of the week it is on the menu, and considering removing the meat entree option [at the Specialty Bar] since we already offer other meat entrees,” Spence said.

Spence said Food Service will still offer Specialty Bars every other Wednesday throughout the month of March as part of the pilot program. 

“We are analyzing production cost and tracking meal participation by entree to determine whether the Specialty Bar is viable long term,” Spence said.

Spence said the program is not currently scheduled to be piloted at Gunn High School.

“In two months, the Gunn High kitchen will be under construction for the next two years,” Spence said. “When the new Gunn High [School] kitchen and dining room open, we will be able to offer and adopt these changes.”

Spence said the Food Service staff hopes more Paly students will try out the new options. 

“Hopefully, with more publicity, more students will be aware of the pilot program and will come and try the new entrees,” Spence said.

According to the PAUSD lunch menu, the next Specialty Bar will feature rice and burrito or taco bowls with meat and vegan options on March 23.