Fewer than half of federal facilities surveyed routinely offer a plant-based or vegetarian entree option, and many of those options provide limited nutritional benefits, EWG has found.
EWG’s survey of 521 federal domestic dining facilities – including federal prisons, parks, hospitals, museums and government buildings – found:
- 22 never offered a plant-based or vegetarian entrée option.
- 41 provided a plant-based or vegetarian option less than three days a week.
- 213 offered a plant-based or vegetarian option three days a week.
- 245 provided a plant-based or vegetarian option more than three days a week.
Federal dining facilities are not required to provide a plant-based or vegetarian option, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on federal dining facilities recommend offering one at least three times a week.
The upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Health and Nutrition provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support healthier diets by requiring federal agencies to provide a plant-based or vegetarian option every time the federal government serves a meal, and by ensuring that these options meet federal nutrition standards.
EWG’s survey also found significant variation among domestic federal dining facilities. We found:
- All 122 federal prisons offer inmates a plant-based or vegetarian option at every meal.
- 120 of 217 Defense Department facilities surveyed provide a plant-based or vegetarian option three times a week, and 54 offer the option more than three times a week.
- 34 of 46 Veterans Affairs hospitals surveyed provide a plant-based or vegetarian option at least three days a week.
- Only one of 90 National Parks dining facilities surveyed failed to offer visitors plant-based or vegetarian option at least three times a week.
- Over half of federal museums and other tourist attractions provide a plant-based or vegetarian option more than three times a week.
Many federal buildings with cafeterias routinely serving federal workers offer plant-based or vegetarian options, including the White House and the Members’ Dining Room, which serves members of Congress.
But some federal buildings do not have cafeterias, or closed cafeterias during the Covid-19 pandemic, and others with dining halls offer a plant-based or vegetarian option only three times a week. For example, 21 VA hospitals surveyed offer this option sporadically on their weekly menus. The only options that were provided often included a bean- or plant-based patty option or salad and lacked variety that would make it appealing to all consumers or difficult to maintain a plant-based diet.
Demand for plant-based and vegetarian options is growing, studies show. Plant-based food sales increased by more than 6 percent in 2021, outpacing other food categories. Almost 30 percent of consumers say they are trying to eat less meat, and almost 80 percent of Gen Z and Millennials say they are incorporating plant-based options into their diet.
When these options are available in federal dining facilities, they may not provide sufficient nutrition, EWG found. For example, some options offered by the Defense Department include cheese pizza or a vegetable soup. Experts have reported poor nutritional quality in the foods offered in some prisons.
Prisons and parks could provide important insights for other federal agencies. Although much needs to be done to improve the nutritional quality of food served in prisons, federal prisons have consistently offered a plant-based or vegetarian option since 2013, and cost per meal has not increased, when adjusted for inflation.
The federal government spends billions of dollars providing nearly half a million meals annually to visitors, workers, inmates and patients, so modest changes in meal patterns could produce significant health benefits. Research shows that increasing healthy options can lead to healthier choices by consumers, and that healthier choices can help lower risks posed by high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and certain cancers.
More than 30 members of Congress and a broad coalition of chefs, farm, food, public health, animal welfare and environmental groups have urged the Biden administration to make a plant-based or vegetarian option available everywhere the federal government serves a meal.
Tracking federal agencies to identify whether these options are available will be critical to future efforts to support healthy diets. But EWG found no consistent reporting by federal agencies on menu options or compliance with CDC guidelines.
President Biden could direct all federal facilities to offer a plant-based or vegetarian option. For example, the Biden administration could amend federal acquisition regulations, or make current voluntary guidelines mandatory. For example, the administration recently issued an executive order to address the effects of federal purchases on climate change. Plant-based foods typically have a lower climate impact than meat-based dishes.
Eve Devens contributed to this article.