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Impossible Foods eyes schools for new customers

Food companies have come under fire for marketing to kids

2nd China International Import Expo (CIIE) - Day 5
Impossible Burgers sit on a tray at the Impossible Foods Inc. booth on day five of the 2nd China International Import Expo (CIIE) at the National Exhibition and Convention Center on November 9, 2019 in Shanghai, China.
Photo by Gao Yuwen/VCG via Getty Images

Impossible Burgers will be making their way onto school menus across the US. The meatless burger just received the Child Nutrition Label from the USDA, which could make it easier for public schools to serve the product because the Impossible Burgers will be eligible for national school lunch funding. Impossible Foods hopes to offer up protein-packed lunches that don’t generate as much greenhouse gases as red meat. But slapping branding on foods served up to kids can still be harmful, even if the meals might be better for the environment.

“Just on principle, we believe that schools should be commercial free,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “Companies should really keep their branding out.”

Adults can carry loyalties to brands that they’re exposed to as kids, research has shown. That’s not great for their health if they’re developing a taste for junk food, so advocates have pushed for more nutritious options, including plant-based foods, in schools. Impossible Burgers are plant-based and have gotten the green light from the Food and Drug Administration to be sold in grocery stores (despite some activists’ concerns over its key genetically engineered ingredient, heme, that the company says makes its burgers “taste like meat”).

The problem that Schwartz sees with Impossible Foods’ move into schools has more to do with its branding than with its product. (She’s unable to comment on whether Impossible Burgers are any better or worse than other foods.) If schools want to serve meals with less meat and a smaller carbon footprint, then they should serve the meatless patties without the Impossible trademark, she says.

“When you allow a giant corporation to use that setting to get their brand in front of kids … It’s completely in conflict with the purpose of schools in the first place and I just think it’s completely unfair,” Schwartz says. “There’s something sacred about the school environment, that it should be a place where students aren’t being pressured to buy particular products.”

Schools in Palo Alto, California; Aberdeen, Washington; Edmond, Oklahoma; and Union City, Oklahoma, will start pilot programs serving Impossible Burgers this month. The product won’t just appear in a bun, either. There will be “Impossible™ Street Tacos,” “Impossible™ Frito Pie,” and “Spaghetti with Impossible™ Meat Sauce.” Impossible Foods will leave it up to school districts to decide how they want to serve its product and whether or not they want to use the brand’s name, the company said in an email to The Verge.

Impossible Foods seems to want to take more schools by storm soon. “Making Impossible™ products available everywhere people consume meat, which for kids often includes schools, is key to the mission of the company,” Pat Brown, CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods, said in a statement.

Update 5/10/21 6:15PM ET: This story has been updated with a response from Impossible Foods.