The Challenge

Food is at the heart of many of the world’s environmental, social and economic challenges: among them how we address climate change and biodiversity loss, while also delivering healthy, nutritious food for all in the face of shrinking resources and a growing global population. The COVID-19 crisis has only further exacerbated the need to address the impact of the food system on our planet, our health and well-being. It has brought to light drastic challenges for food security and revealed the fragilities in today’s food supply chains.

Awareness is growing amongst Americans of the need to improve the resilience of our food system and its ability to deliver ‘sustainable nutrition’. Yet while there are signs that diets in the United States are beginning to rebalance, efforts to build the right enabling conditions to bring about a mainstream shift urgently need to accelerate - read more about this in our Future of Food report.  

Schools and students are powerful enablers of change

Empowering students and schools to become catalysts for change is a key route to achieving sustainable nutrition for all. 

Today’s students are more motivated to tackle climate change and can be powerful influencers for positive change. Even in the face of disruption, young people around the country continue to be strong advocates for a more just and sustainable future. At the same time, students are at a key transition point and the habits and palettes they build now will have a strong bearing on their dietary habits in later life. Research conducted by the Ad Council found that 16% of American high school students are now requesting more plant-based options from their school menus.

The U.S. School Lunch Program covers nearly 100,000 institutions, serving 4.9 billion lunches to 30 million students every year. Schools have a huge influence in students’ lives and can support better dietary choices, while the Lunch Program provides essential nutrition and hunger relief at scale and could have a disproportionately positive impact on those most in need of quality nutrition. And more than 40% of school food directors are planning to order more vegetarian options in the next two years to support the increasing demand. 

This indicates an urgent need - and opportunity - to equip school food directors and others working on behavior change both inside and outside of the school lunch system, with the resources and support to transition in a way that ensures high-quality plant-based options are available as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Read the Future Plates Report: Transforming School Lunches

Our solution

Facilitated by Forum for the Future, the Future Plates initiative in the U.S. aimed to understand the conditions needed to support people to choose and consume more plant-based foods in U.S. public schools. From 2018 to 2020, the initiative brought together a diverse group across the food system, from NGOs, food companies, school district representatives, child behavior change specialists, to communications professionals, in order to identify the current barriers to change and to start testing possible interventions.

The initiative’s partners and collaborators worked with ten diverse school districts across the U.S., which serve a combined total of over 38 million meals per year, to explore how to shift student behavior in the cafeteria and beyond. Together, we identified and developed two key approaches that need to happen in parallel to increase the number of tasty, healthy, and affordable plant-based options available to school chefs and ultimately students. 

  1. Increasing the quality and quantity of plant-based protein options available in school cafeterias. Forum brought School Nutrition Directors together to create higher volumes of collective demand for new high-quality plant-based options, while engaging directly with food manufacturers to ensure that new plant-based products were effectively developed to meet the needs of schools and students. In response to an RFP, food manufacturers put forward new or existing plant-based products, and three options were shortlisted against the criteria of cost, nutritional content and functionality.

  2. Supporting a shift in students’ perceptions of, and attitudes to, plant-based food. Our pilot set out to test what it takes to enable a growth in demand for these new menu options through a student-centered engagement campaign. Named “Food for Change”, the resources in the engagement toolkit aimed to help students support a peer-to-peer shift in how they think about and consume plant based protein. The group enlisted the Ad Council’s social messaging experts alongside behavior change specialists Michael Cohen Group to help partners understand the existing science behind behavior change in schools and effective messaging around plant-based options.

The insights and experience gained from this work are captured in our Future Plates US Insights Report and are relevant for those working on behaviour change both inside and outside of the school lunch system.

We are also making the 'Food for Change' Engagement Toolkit for student leaders available, which includes student engagement workshop guides and ready-made posters, as well as customizable logos, plant-based emojis and factsheets.

Download the 'Food for Change' Engagement Toolkit 

Our ten partner school districts were in the second month of piloting the new menu options and 'Food for Change' campaign when COVID-19 caused schools around the country to shut down. Our partners are working tirelessly to continue to provide food to their students and families during the pandemic. However, much has been learned already about change and we hope that the key research findings outlined in the report will provide useful insights for stakeholders in schools, NGOs, and other organizations working on rebalancing diets in the U.S. towards more plant-forward eating, as we return to a new normal.

Be part of the change

No matter where you sit in the school food system - as a food manufacturer, school, NGO or other actor - five actions will be vital if we are to collectively accelerate the shift in diets we so urgently need to see: 

  • Collaboration is required to overcome a challenge as significant and important as shifting diets. Engaging a diversity of perspectives, working together across traditional seller-customer relationships and demonstrating a collective demand signal for change are crucial for driving transformative change.
  • Public narratives are formed through the accumulation of stories from a wide variety of sources and underpin so many of our daily choices and habits. Consider how your marketing and communications are contributing to a positive narrative around sustainable diets. 
  • Invest in innovation that meets the diverse needs and opportunities associated with plant-based options - taste, nutrition, convenience and environmental impact. Embrace driving innovation even in margin-constrained markets as a welcome challenge for bringing sustainable nutrition into the mainstream.
  • Empower young people as influential agents of change to drive progress towards a more just and sustainable future. 
  • Build on the insights from this report to experiment within your own work - in the school cafeteria, innovation lab, or with your communications team - and share your learnings with others. 

Get in touch

For more information about Future Plates, our work on transforming U.S. school lunches or the 'Food for Change' engagement toolkit, contact us:

Contact us

Future Plates US partners

The Future Plates pilot is part of the Protein Challenge 2040, an ambitious collaboration to create a more sustainable future for the protein sector. Find out more about: