Friday, 21 December, 2018
After reaching 10,000 signatures, the government has responded to our petition calling for a plant-based option on every public sector menu. Disappointingly, (but unsurprisingly) they are happy with the status quo and are reluctant to make any changes to the current situation.
Our petition is still collecting signatures until mid-March, so there is still time to put further pressure on the government.
What a year it has been for the vegan movement; every week that has gone by has seen more progress. Highlights have been the first ever vegan week on Great British Bake Off, Tesco launching their creative Wicked Kitchen range and Virgin Trains becoming the first UK rail provider to offer a full vegan meal. It really has never been easier to be vegan in the UK.
However, if you can't cook for yourself and have to rely on mostly non-vegans to provide for you in the public sector (schools, hospitals, prisons), it can still be a real challenge to access healthy, nutritious vegan meals.
Our Catering For Everyone campaign has been garnering support for a change in the law to guarantee vegan options on public sector menus. As this is a devolved issue, we launched three separate petitions to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. The Scottish petition has closed, and we presented our case to the Scottish Petitions Committee (made up of Members of the Scottish Parliament). The Committee is currently gathering further evidence to make a decision.
On 1 November, World Vegan Day, we reached 10,000 signatures on our Westminster petition, which meant that the government was obliged to respond.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) responded with a disappointing but not wholly unexpected response: “Public sector canteens are happy to cater for people with special dietary needs including those eating a vegan diet.”
The main reason they offer for not accepting the petition plea is summarised by this quote: “We do not think it appropriate to stipulate particular menus in the standards as these are best dealt with by meeting local customer demand.”
This is an unsatisfactory response as it avoids the fact that many institutions are not currently meeting local vegan demand, resulting in many vegans being left hungry and not being catered for in line with their protected philosophical belief.
We always knew that the current government would be resistant to our proposed legislation but their response appears particularly weak and ignores the real problems that are being faced by vegans trapped in vulnerable situations.
There was only one slightly encouraging statement in their response, which acknowledged the rise in veganism and the ‘legitimate expectation’ that public sector food should reflect this.
“The number of people in the UK who eat a vegan diet has increased significantly over recent years and they have a legitimate expectation the food served in public sector establishments reflects this.”
Unfortunately, despite acknowledging this, their reluctance to set criteria that would fulfil this means that vegans’ legitimate requirements are not being met and the state is failing them.
DEFRA’s response also ignored the wider benefits to the environment and public health of offering vegan food on standard public sector menus.
Building familiarity with plant-based food will result in healthier, more environmentally-friendly longer-term diet choices. As more people become exposed to vegan food the general uptake will increase.
The environmental case is clear that globally, including here in the UK, we need to be shifting towards a more plant-based diet, if we are to have any chance of averting catastrophic temperature increases. This change would play a vital role in helping that shift to happen, something that has been overlooked by DEFRA in their response, whose remit includes the environment.
Poor diet is estimated to cost the NHS £5.8 billion annually – more than smoking, alcohol or physical inactivity. Increasing availability and accessibility of vegan food in public sector settings could be part of the long-term solution to this. Vegan food typically contains lots of fruit, vegetables, grains and pulses, which are beneficial for health.
Last year, Portugal made this change and now offers a vegan option on all public sector standard menus without people having to make a special request. This came from a successful grassroots campaign, which culminated in the Portuguese government acknowledging the benefits this brings to vegans, the environment and public health.
If Portugal can do this then why can’t the UK? Dozens of MPs and politicians have already backed the campaign, which is proving very popular.
Despite the disappointing response from the government, these issues are not going to go away. The UK vegan population continues to soar and more and more people are seeing the benefits of plant-based food. We must all continue the campaign to guarantee vegan food options on public sector menus. The next step to put further pressure on government is to get to 100,000 petition signatures so it will be considered for a debate in parliament.
Please continue to share the petition online and talk to your friends and family about the importance of there being vegan options available for all. Let’s reach the target and continue the debate inside the House of Commons.
You can sign the Westminster petition here:
With an estimated 600,000 (and rising) vegans in Britain, plus their supportive friends and families, this is something we can definitely achieve.
The views expressed by our bloggers are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.