Animal Aid

SCHOOL REPORT - Vegetarian food

In October 2001, in preparation for Veggie Month, we launched a national survey which sought to determine how well Britain's primary and secondary schools cater for vegetarians. The survey form featured eight simple questions, and asked participants to state how many veggie options are provided and to describe the quality and variety of the food that is served.

Click here for the full report (PDF format)

We sent survey forms to all our adult and youth members and supporters. We also wrote to all of Britain's regional newspapers, appealing to their readers to take part. In total, 369 schools are represented (just over half of which are secondary).

The good news is that just under a fifth of the schools surveyed provide four or more vegetarian options every day. Disappointingly however, our respondents reported that more than a quarter of the schools have days during each week when no vegetarian option at all is provided.

Only two schools in Northern Ireland were involved in the survey, so these have not been included in the regional breakdown. Neither of these schools provided a vegetarian option every day.

How many young vegetarians are there?

Surveys consistently indicate that between eight and ten percent of teenagers are vegetarian and a quarter of girls avoid eating red meat. A survey carried out for the Vegetarian Society found:

  • 7% of adults claim to be vegetarian.
  • 8% of 11-18 year olds claim to be vegetarian.

The SMRC ChildWise Monitor Survey of January 1996 found:

  • 10% of boys and 11% of girls aged 7-11 avoid eating meat.
  • 11% of boys and 24% of girls aged 11-17 avoid eating meat.

Our survey results

  • 18% of schools provide four or more vegetarian options every day.
  • 33% provide two or three options every day.
  • 22% provide one option every day.
  • 27% sometimes, or regularly, have days where no vegetarian option is provided.

52% of the school pupils surveyed believe that the vegetarian meals in their school are of similar quality to the other meals. 14% believe they are better. 29% believe they are worse. 5% don't know, or don't have an opinion.

The vegetarian foods most commonly served by schools are: macaroni cheese, baked potato with cheese or beans, chips, pizza, veggieburger, cheese pasties and basic salads.

Results by Region Options
  4+ 2-3 1 often 0
North* 16.5% 29% 25.5% 27%
North West 27% 30.5% 9% 33.5%
Midlands 11% 33.5% 22% 33.5%
South & S.W 21% 23.5% 32% 23.5%
South East 18% 35% 27% 20%
East 22% 22% 22% 34%
Scotland 15% 43% 15% 27%
Wales 14% 43% 14% 29%

REGIONS - North: Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumberland, Durham. North West: Cheshire, Lancs, Merseyside, Gr. Manch. Midlands: Notts, Derbys, W. Mids, Leics, Staffs, Warks, Northants, Shrops, Worcs. South & S. West: Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucs, Wilts, Hants, Channel Is, I.O.W. South East: Kent, Essex, London, Middx, Bucks, Beds, Oxfordshire, Herts, Surrey, Sussex. East: Lincs, Cambs, Norfolk, Suffolk.
*(2% of Northern participants didn't specify the number of options)

Observations and comments

  1. Many school caterers label fish dishes as vegetarian.

    "They put fish options in the vegetarian bar.... It is stupid. The other veggies I know think this too."

    Katherine from Yorkshire.

    "My 4 year old son was given fish... in spite of the school being told time and time again that we are vegetarian."

    Lynne, a parent from Cambridgeshire.

    "My children are aged 31, 28 and 9. When the first two were babies, the health visitor was informed and supportive. With Rachel, the youngest, I was told that if we were vegetarian I should be giving her fish!"

    Christine from Essex, who went on to explain that the catering staff at the school she works at regularly label fish dishes as vegetarian.

    "My whole family decided to go properly vegetarian (i.e. give up fish) when I was seven because we kept finding bones in fish fingers and realised fish are animals too."

    Heather from Surrey.

  2. Many young vegetarians feel that their views are not respected and they are treated like 'second class' customers.

    "They gave me pizza and sweetcorn for my Christmas dinner!"

    Sean from Essex.

    "My son is made to feel different and alienated at canteen time because of uneducated, unhelpful and ignorant staff members."

    Anne Marie, a parent from Derry, Northern Ireland.

    "We tried to get veggie meals on the menu. On one occasion my daughter was given meat gravy and when she complained was told to wash if off under the tap!"

    Alison, a parent from Lincolnshire.

    "At my school's Christmas dinner, the dinner lady put some turkey on my plate without even asking. Everybody in the lunchroom kept asking why I wasn't having the turkey."

    Steph from Aberdeenshire.

  3. The majority of participants want a wider choice of food.

    The school children feel that their meals lack variety. Provision for vegans is very poor in most of the schools surveyed.

    "I am vegan and have chips and beans every day. That's all I can have."

    Bob from West Yorkshire.

    "There is no vegan option. I would like to be vegan but cannot."

    Sarah from Somerset.

    "The food is of very poor quality and not in the least healthy or appetising."

    Eloise from Buckinghamshire, who is also vegan.

  4. A growing number of large schools have staggered lunch breaks.

    The pupils eat in shifts in order to reduce the length of queues and demand for tables. Some of the participating children told us that there is an insufficient number of vegetarian meals available, which means that those who go to lunch first are offered the full choice of food, whereas those who eat later have to make do with whatever is left. This means that many vegetarians sometimes have to go without a meal.

    "No veggie food left after the 1st bell. We are on the 4th."

    Ana from North Yorkshire.

    "The choice depends on what time you get to dinner: the food might all be gone."

    Nia from Powys.

  5. 5. Cross-contamination occurs.

    Many of the youngsters commented that the catering staff in their school regularly use the same serving tongs to handle both meat and non-meat items, which puts them off eating the food.

  6. Too much cheese and wheat is used.

    Many participants commented that the vegetarian meals they are served are too heavily based on cheese and wheat. The influential Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ( advises on the health problems associated with dairy products arising from their high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. These include breathing and skin ailments.

    "There is not enough choice for veggies. Everything is cheese based."

    Linda, a school 'dinner lady' from Kent.

    "I wish we had an actual option each day rather than just pasta."

    Jodie from Bristol.

    "It's all about chips and pizza, there are no actual vegetarian meals."

    Anonymous respondent from Lancashire.

  7. Too much high fat food is served.

    Recent studies have shown the early stages of heart disease developing in teenagers.

    "They serve chips every day, but should do once a week."

    Mother of Paul, a primary school pupil from West Yorkshire.

    "Things are too greasy, teenagers do like healthy food!"

    Mark, also from West Yorkshire.

    "We hate school meals, our mum says there's no protein. It's completely fat and carbohydrate."

    Asia and Eden from Cumbria.

    Our conclusion

    Whilst it is clear that the majority of schools cater for vegetarians, Animal Aid has a number of strong concerns.

    Although nearly a fifth of the schools included in our survey are reported to offer at least four veggie options every day, more than a quarter sometimes or regularly make no provision for vegetarians.

    Many of the children were very enthusiastic about some of their school meals. However, almost all told us that they would like a greater variety of food, and many said they would prefer less dependence on cheese, baked potatoes, pasta and pastries and more interesting and filling meals instead.

    Stuffed aubergine, vegetarian sausages, soya mince, interesting salads and dairy-free cheese and desserts were some of the foods that the participants most often said they would like to be served.

    Parents regularly report that the school meal plays a vital role in their children's health. In fact, for some children, their school dinner is the only substantial meal they are offered all day. It is therefore very important that all young people are able to sit down to a nourishing meal at school.

    In a report submitted to the government in 1998, the Child Poverty Action Group expressed concern about the nutritional content of school meals. The CPAG report states:

    "Currently, children's diets generally are too high in sugar and fat and too low in fibre, some vitamins and minerals. Dietary deficiencies can affect both short and long term health. Under-nutrition, even in its milder forms, can have detrimental effects on concentration and school performance...

    "The teaching of food skills (nutrition and cooking) should be reintroduced into the curriculum. The introduction of School Nutrition Action Groups should be encouraged to involve children, parents, teachers and caterers in creating school food policies. Other healthy eating initiatives such as fruit tuck shops deserve further attention."

    The government's own report, The Diets of British Schoolchildren, published in 1989, concluded that young people depend for a significant proportion of their total energy intake on three foods: chips, cakes and biscuits. The children tend to fill up on these, giving them less of an appetite for more nutritious foods.

    Researchers at the University of Bangor have concluded that children can learn to like fresh fruit and vegetables. Youngsters were shown videos, which portrayed fruit and vegetables in a positive way, and were encouraged to sample small quantities. After a while, they would choose the fruit and vegetables rather than chocolate bars. This change in preference was long lasting. CF Lowe et al, The Psychological Determinants of Children's Food Preferences, University of Bangor 1997.

    The Department for Education and Skills began to introduce guidelines about nutritional standards in schools in 1999 and the process is still ongoing. The consultation paper, Ingredients for Success (1998), claims that a healthy diet for children means: "a balanced diet with plenty of variety and enough energy for growth and development".

    The paper claims that "National nutritional standards will ensure that a balanced school lunch is available to all pupils". Clearly, this is not currently the case for many of the vegetarian children who took part in our survey.

    Ingredients for Success states that children should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, moderate amounts of dairy products, moderate amounts of meat, fish or alternatives, plenty of fibre-rich starchy foods, and limited fat and sugar.

    It is clear from the response to our survey that a significant number of vegetarian children do not have access to school meals containing adequate fruit, vegetables and fibre. There is little variety in the meals described by most of our survey participants, and menus seem to be dominated by wheat, fried foods and dairy products.

    Animal Aid calls upon the government to act to ensure that the standard of vegetarian catering in British schools is of a uniformly high standard.

    Veggie kids are standing up to be counted, and they have just as much right to be catered for as adults. As most children are unable to buy and cook their own meals, they depend on their parents and school to give them the kind of food they require to keep them healthy and satisfied.

    Clearly, whilst some school caterers deserve a gold star, the majority must try harder!

    Animal Aid's recommendations

    1. Schools should provide at least two vegetarian main meal options every day, along with a range of vegetarian snacks.
    2. The needs of the growing number of vegan and dairy-intolerant children must be recognised and they should all be able to get a full, hot school meal every day.
    3. There is clearly too much reliance on cheese, pasta and chips for the vegetarian meal options served. More use should be made of interesting vegetables and salads, as well as vegetarian sausages, burgers and soya mince.
    4. Fruit tuck shops and initiatives such as the Edinburgh 'Snack Attack' are an excellent idea and these should be established in every school.
    5. Young people should not be taught that a balanced diet demands meat, eggs and dairy products. They should be educated about the healthy alternatives to animal products, so that they can make an informed choice.
    6. Vegetarian youngsters need to be given equal status to their meat-eating peers. They should never be made to feel awkward or treated like second-class customers.

    Case Study

    The Edinburgh Community Food Initiative's "Snack Attack'

    This project was started in 1999 by the City of Edinburgh Council, with the aim of increasing the amount of fruit eaten by school children. It has been a considerable success.

    The organisers deliver 17,000 pieces of fruit each week to more than 75 schools throughout the city. This is provided free of charge to children entitled to free school meals, and sold for 10p a portion to the others.

    Pupils in the participating schools are actively encouraged to snack on fruit, and teachers have incorporated a fruit theme into some lessons. In one example, the children were taught about types of exotic fruit such as pomegranates, which were eaten in ancient Egypt, and then given the chance to sample them.

    Many participating schools have also banned or cut down on the sale of crisps and fizzy drinks. The teachers in these schools have reported a reduction in hyperactivity in their pupils, alongside improved concentration spans and performance.

    Edinburgh Community Food Initiative spokesperson Marjorie Shepherd, told Animal Aid:

    "Snack Attack brings the opportunity to eat more fruit right into the classroom. Children who used to say they didn't like fruit are now tucking into apples, bananas, kiwis and satsumas, as well as carrots and cherry tomatoes, along with the rest of their classmates.

    "The ethos behind the programme is simple - to encourage a life-long fruit eating habit in the younger generation."

    For quotes from some of our survey participants, see Wise Words.

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