“This is not about dictating. We are not going to pin people down and force them to eat vegan food.’ Interesting words from Liz Leffman, given that she is the leader of Oxfordshire Council, the first local authority in the UK that has voted to serve only plant-based meals at its meetings. 

In matters of dietary preference, the UK has had a history of tolerance. Individuals, families and social groupings decided for themselves what to put on their plates, reflecting a heterogeneous mixture of regional, religious and cultural mores. But Oxfordshire Council’s newly adopted policy is part of an ongoing trend in the public space, such as Meat Free Mondays, that seeks to supplant our traditional live-and-let-live tolerance with an imposed food prescription.

Council meetings: does it matter what’s for lunch? 

No one has high expectations of the catering at municipal events. Adult attendees are free to pop outside to eat something they prefer. But Oxfordshire Council’s policy, proposed by a Green, vegan councillor, isn’t restricted to adults. The Council also voted to ensure that vegan lunch options will be offered to school children for part of the week.

That move might not seem unreasonable. I’d be delighted to eat a vegan lunch once or more a week, providing that it was cooked from scratch ingredients – vegetables, legumes, nuts and other whole foods – not ultra-processed re-heats. But anyone familiar with school meals will know that such a scenario is wishful thinking, given the low-quality standards and tight budget constraints of food procurement in institutional settings.

Before it adopted its new food policy, 40% of menu choices in Oxfordshire Council schools were already meat-free. That figure will increase to 62% overall after Easter, with the most notable change being the introduction of a dedicated plant-based day once a week. Here you can see the incremental, top-down shaping of children’s food choices to a point where meat and other livestock-sourced foods, become a rapidly diminishing part of the offer.

No ham sandwiches

Oxfordshire Council isn’t alone. Barrowford Primary in Lancashire hit the headlines earlier this year after parents objected when the school urged children not to bring meat in their packed lunches. 

Barrowford Primary had reduced the amount of meat on its school menu in 2020 and stopped serving it in 2021. After someone reminded the local authority of a legal requirement to offer children three portions of meat a week, Barrowford reinstated it, but only in the form of chicken. Now amongst at least fifteen weekly meal choices, chicken accounts for just three options. 

These UK examples of how meat is being restricted echo similar initiatives in the US. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat politician, and a vegan who has likened cheese to heroin, introduced vegan lunches in schools on Fridays. Pupils and parents have posted pictures on social media of the unedifying, heavily processed products in question. Mondays in New York City are already meatless. 

What impact might such plant-based, meat-restricted policies have on our children’s health and development?

Running on empty

Every parent will have experienced ‘after-school syndrome’, where children emerge famished and cranky. Sometimes that’s because they haven’t liked or eaten what the school has given them. Other times the quantity and type of food was insufficient to supply them with a steady source of energy into the late afternoon.

Better-off parents typically correct this by arriving for pick-up armed with substantial snacks. But the group of children who will be most impacted by plant-based diktats are those who are ‘food insecure’ and do not have reliable access to good food at home. 

For children whose parents are struggling financially to put decent food on their plates, school meals might well be the most sustaining, nutrient-dense food they eat in a day. Reducing meat and livestock products will make it even harder for poor parents to nourish their children adequately.

Increasing children’s intake of fruit and vegetables has been the sine qua non of school food policy in recent decades, and fruit and vegetables can make a useful contribution to a child’s dietary needs in the form of valuable micronutrients and fibre. But even if every child in the UK were persuaded to consume the advocated five servings of fruit and veg a day – a dietetic Eldorado if ever there was one – they would still need other foods to satisfy their overall macronutrient requirements.

What’s healthy?

The only plant-based foodstuff that comes close to providing equivalent complete protein to meat, for instance, is soy. It is not realistic to imagine that children can meet their protein needs from vegetables alone. A 100 gram portion of eggs provides 59% of the priority micronutrients needed for child health, whereas the same amount of carrots provides only 22%. 

In one plant-based nursery I know, lunch is a selection of fruit, vegetables and legumes, which the children appear to consume in tiny amounts or leave uneaten. Their meal is bulked up with starches: bread, plain pasta or rice. These carbohydrate-rich foods digest down into astonishing amounts of sugar, giving the children a rapid surge of energy that is typically followed by lethargy: the ‘post-sugar crash’. A 150 gram serving of rice, for instance, is the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar in terms of its effects on blood glucose levels. 

And the micronutrients in plant-based foods are not so easily absorbed as they are from animal-sourced foods. Omega-3 from animal sources are 10 times more bioavailable than from plant sources. Iron from animal sources is 1.5 times more bioavailable than from plant sources. Zinc from animal sources is at least 60% more bioavailable than from plants. 

It’s one thing for a well-informed adult to choose to adopt a carefully calibrated, plant-based, even fully vegan diet, and quite another to gradually impose one on children who have greater need of nutrient dense foods because they are still going through developmental growth. Ill-considered measures that fixate on reducing meat and other animal-sourced foods while bumping up the plant component, could adversely affect the nutritiousness and digestibility of the food children need to support their growing bodies and brains.

A child who eats meat, fish, eggs and dairy could consume almost no fruit and vegetables yet stay reasonably healthy, because with the exception of vitamin C, all their nutritional requirements could be met by these foods. By contrast, a child who relies on purely plant-based foods runs the risk of developing micronutrient deficiencies – vitamins B12, D3, K2 and retinol, and other key micronutrients, such as essential fatty acids, complete amino acids and heme iron – unless their parents can afford to buy expensive supplements and persuade them to take them daily. 

Quality food

At Barrowford School, head teacher, Rachel Tomlinson, reports that her school tries to source vegetables locally. Oxfordshire Council leader Liz Leffman says: “What we all want is high-quality food, which is sustainably produced and sourced locally wherever possible so that our food miles are kept to a minimum and our local economy is supported.” Amen to that. 

But the irony is that in both Oxfordshire and Lancashire, most local foods are from livestock. Why encourage children to shun these foods produced on their doorstep?

Tomlinson, says that her children are having soup. Their favourite plant-based option, however, is “vegetable ‘sausage’ rolls”. I could not track down any commercial product available to caterers that fits this precise description but did examine the ingredient lists for products described as vegetarian sausage rolls. Not one had fewer than 10 ingredients and several brands contained upwards of 20, such as soya protein isolates, pea concentrate, flavourings, sweeteners, emulsifiers and colourings. None contained significant amounts of vegetables. These ultra-processed products are hardly optimum for child health.

Some public institutions have jumped on a fashionable, virtue-signalling bandwagon. In that process, they have made mistaken assumptions about what is healthy and sustainable, without interrogating the quality of plant-based alternatives, in terms of either production method or provenance.

Have they carried out any dietary due diligence on the likely consequences of this policy shift for our children’s health? I suspect not.