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Illinois schools have to offer a vegan lunch if a student request it in advance. Urbana schools go one step further.

Quest Food Management executive chef Jacob Jenkins highlights the vegetarian lunch options at Thomas Paine Elementary School in Urbana on April 25, 2024.

Since the fall of 2023, a state law requires all Illinois school districts to provide vegan lunch options if requested by a student in advance. 

Urbana School District 116 goes one step further and offers vegan lunches every day. 

Jacob Jenkins oversees all District 116 school meals as an executive chef for Illinois-based contractor Quest Food Management. He said few families actually fill out the online form created by the law. 

“We run a lot of the options on the hotline, so we do mention to the kids that we’ve got the plant-based option. A lot of kids at the high school actually do take it, which is surprising.” Jenkins said.

He estimated about 15 percent of Urbana high schoolers choose the plant-based option.

At Thomas Paine Elementary School, cafeteria workers ladle meatballs into buns and assemble chicken sandwiches. Most students line up for these hot options. But on the side, there are also sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate chickpea spread snack boxes. 

That’s a favorite of fifth grader Israella Nyembwe. She’s not a vegetarian, but sometimes chooses the meatless option. 

“It’s good, most of the time, but they usually have salads,” Nyembwe said. 

Other vegetarian mains this month include a hummus wrap and yogurt and granola. Families can also go online in advance to request other plant-based options.

Urbana District 116 also provides free lunches to all students through a national grant related to the district’s poverty level.

Emily Hays is an education reporter with Illinois Public Media.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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