Oxfordshire County Council has been warned its new policy on plant-based food could backfire with the schoolchildren it is seeking to influence.
The county’s cabinet – ruling group of councillors – unanimously backed new measures for the council to offer only plant-based food at meetings of full council and at some council events.
They also included a “graduated approach to incorporating plant-based options for school meals provided by the council”.
A council report said it provides food for 57 of the county’s primary schools or nurseries. Oxfordshire has 400 maintained schools and academies, including secondary schools, overall.
Currently, 40 per cent of menu choices in those 57 schools do not contain any meat. The plan is for that to increase to 62 per cent overall after the Easter break with the most notable change being the introduction of “a dedicated plant-based day, once a week, for all of our main meals”.
There will be nothing stopping people from bringing and eating their own food, including meat and dairy, but Councillor Donna Ford (Con, Bicester North) argued this was the wrong way to win over children and parents.
“For me this has always been the main element of this motion,” she said.
“For us as members or grown adults we have the choice to walk out at lunch time and buy our own food. This is not an option for some of our youngest and most vulnerable residents, schoolchildren either eat what is put in front of them or simply go hungry.
“This recommendation seeks to impose a plant-based diet on schoolchildren for 39 meals a year. Most of the children this targets receive free school meals, therefore this proposal will cost the majority of parents if they sought to opt out. At a time when incomes are stretched, do we really want to put additional pressures on parents?”
She advocated “encouraging swaps through measures such as rewards”, adding: “People do not appreciate being told what to do.
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Councillor Liz Leffman (Lib Dem, Charlbury & Wychwood), leader of the council, viewed it differently while acknowledging the plans needed to be implemented “in a thoughtful way”.
“I know from my own experience that children are often very influential on their parents,” she said.
“Quite often they are the ones who are pushing their parents not to use plastic bags or to think about eating plant-based food at home. That is exactly what we want people to do.
“This is not about dictating. We are not going to pin people down and force them to eat vegan food, I can promise you that.
“If people want to go out and buy themselves food outside the council they are very welcome to do that. The important thing here is to say that we are leading by example.”
Some of the debate, particularly around the food to be made available at council meetings, was reduced to political mudslinging, something that dismayed deputy leader Councillor Liz Brighouse OBE (Lab, Churchill & Lye Valley).
She said it “would be amusing if it was not so sad”, encouraging her colleagues to focus on wider food policies, particularly those around children in poverty.
“We are not that important when it comes to the food hierarchy,” she said.
“Let’s put it in perspective and let’s get on with it. Let’s talk about food justice.”