On 12th April, pro-vegan organization The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed a lawsuit against two school districts in Southern California (Los Angeles and Poway) in an attempt to remove processed meats from the schools’ menus. PCRM, with the support of a Californian teacher and two other individuals, claim that serving processed meats in the schools’ cafeterias violates the California Education Code Section 49590 which states that ‘the nutritional levels of meals served to school age children…be of the highest quality and greatest nutritional value possible.’
But is it possible to provide the ‘greatest nutritional value’ with a menu that includes animal products?
The lawsuit follows a study published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in October 2015 which categorized processed meats as a carcinogen (something that causes cancer) and red meat as a probable carcinogen. However, the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) doesn’t seem to think this evidence proves that processed and red meats aren’t healthy claiming that:
“there is no scientific data to support removing [processed meats] from school menus for being unhealthy.” Chris Young, AAMP’s executive director added: “Many of the naturally occurring chemicals from healthy fruits and vegetables in our food could be classified as carcinogens. But that doesn’t mean schools should stop serving them since they do not present a health risk at normal levels of consumption.”
But what are ‘normal levels of consumption’ when it comes to processed meats? A study in 2011 suggested that of all the meat consumed by Americans in that same year, 22% of it was processed. Using OECD’s data on meat consumption for that year, the average individual’s processed meat intake for the year was 20.7kg or a little less than 400g a week, (just 100g fewer than the IARCs recommended maximum weekly allowance for unprocessed red meat which is classified as a lower risk than processed meats).
Following the IARCs classifications of processed meats as a carcinogen, they advised keeping consumption of them to a minimum and even put forward that it would be absolutely fine to cut them out altogether. Hardly the sort of guidance you would expect a medical organization to give were that food providing ‘the greatest nutritional value’. Moreover, a study published last year concluded that eating plant protein in comparison to animal protein can significantly reduce the risk of death from cancers and heart disease. To compare bacon and red lentils as an example, it is clear to see that calorie for calorie lentils provide a much greater nutritional value than bacon (see ‘Table 1’).
Although the PCRM have only targeted processed meats in their lawsuit against the school districts, there is a good deal of scientific evidence to back plant-based diets as being the best way of providing nutrients to the body with the lowest risk. Even tuna, one of the recommended sources of animal protein amongst many scientists and medical experts, despite containing high levels of protein, has significantly more cholesterol and saturated fat per 100 calories than red lentils (see ‘Table 1’). If this is acknowledged could this be a step towards providing all school children in Southern California with plant-based meals in order for schools to meet the code?
It is widely acknowledged that veganism is not only better for the body but better for the planet. The documentary Cowspiracy claims that by following a vegan diet a single person can save 1,100 gallons of water, the equivalent of 20 pounds of carbon dioxide and 30 square feet of rainforest every single day making it a much more sustainable way of living than the average western diet. With around 3 million people in the USA already following a vegan diet and a surge in teen veganism it seems entirely appropriate for schools to be feeding the children of the future a diet that might protect their future.