In Hungary, outrageous school catering regulation received media attention

by Gábor T. Fodor

The largest news website in Hungary (Index.hu), released a front page article this Thursday on school catering for vegan and vegetarian children entitled “The state does not support vegetarianism”. The article declares that it is “totally impossible” to request vegan food at school.       The article only mentions veganism  in one sentence but this is a milestone in public attention on the lack of vegan school catering in Hungary for two reasons. Firstly, this was the first coverage by a major news website on the subject, and secondly, the author of the article was at least neutral towards the subject while even a few months ago vegans had bad press at index.hu. Since the article did not adequately evaluate vegan food accessibility and the legal situation in Hungary this short article explains the problem.

According to the news Article, in 2014 the Ministry of Human Resources issued a decree on “general food health guidelines for public catering”, according to which school caterers are obliged to give certain amount of meat (furthermore, milk products, eggs, etc.) to children at school. According to the decree, there are three ways to avoid children eating meat at school. One may refer to food allergy, to religious reasons, or opt out from the whole system.

None of the above, however, is very feasible for vegans. Since there is no such thing as “food allergy for meat” in general, and since such a food allergy can only be justified by a food specialist doctor (and not say, a psychologist referring to disgust to meat) it is, in theory, not possible to receive such a declaration by a vegan (or even by a vegetarian.) In practice, some vegetarian families do have such declarations, but it is more a favour of a vegetarian friendly doctor trying to find a solution in this ugly system. We are not aware of any such declarations, however, which would justify full vegan catering. It is also to be noted here, that the request of the decree for a specialist doctor’s declaration might be against Hungarian and European data protection laws – we do not really understand why a simple request by the parent for vegan/vegetarian food would not be sufficient, why is a doctor’s, what is more, a specialist doctor’s declaration is requested? Why would the handling of such personal data would be unconditionally necessary?

One might also refer to “religious” reasons; however there are tragicomic stories in connection with this exception. Firstly, we are only aware of vegetarian options chosen by this reference. Even the son of a well-known vegan activist eats only vegetarian at school, as the mother referred to this exception. Some service providers actually do not even know what vegan means, and even if they do, they simply refuse to provide with vegan food. According to the article, such a request is “categorically refused” based on “professional guidelines” and “the provisions of the decree”. Although the latter does not seem to be well grounded from a pure legalistic point of view, since technically nothing would prohibit vegan catering based on religious grounds, still, service providers refuse such request.

Also, for vegetarians the practice in schools varies wildly. In some schools a simple declaration is enough to request vegetarian food for religious reasons (sometimes even to “belief”, which, according to human rights legal resources should be having the same status as religion), while other schools request a written statement from one of the 27  recognised churches,  that it does not support the consumption of meat. The requirement to produce a paper from a state organ proving which church do you belong to was a practice during the holocaust for the last time in Hungary and although the Krishna church is usually helpful to those wishing to make a request, such a request by the service provider is of course contrary to Hungary’s constitution, data protection laws and also basic human rights standards. One does not have to be a member of one of the recognised churches to be religious, and declaring to what church ones belong to is not a necessary data to request for vegetarian food, so also data protection laws are breached by this practice.

As mentioned above, we are technically of the opinion that one might refer to religious reasons for requesting vegan catering, but in practice, due to the refusal of school caterers, partly based on misinterpretation of the law, partly due to their laziness and non-understanding of the importance of the issue, this does not work.

The third option would be the opt-out from school catering. In this case the

children would bring their own food to school. However, this option is also usually refused by school caterers. The article refers to a provision in an “act”, however, we are not aware of any such provision, and the article also does not name such. Others refer to prescriptions of the public health authority, however, we are not  aware of this either – what is more, there is a declaration of the human rights ombudsman from 2013 stating that the possibility of school catering is a right of the parent and not an obligation, i.e. the parent may provide the child with food from home. However, even the ombudsman letter declared the issue of food hygiene from home food problematic. In practice, service providers also refer to hygiene issues relating to food brought from home and refuse the handling of it. They usually refer to the lack of refrigerator space, lack of workforce and similar. A further problem with this third option is that the state subsidizes school catering but there is no subsidy for food brought from home.

So, even if there were a very narrow possibility to vegan child catering at school either with reference to religious (or health) reasons, or either by food brought from home, in practice it does not work as  the service providers refuse such requests. It is also to be noted here, that the practice of individual service providers widely vary. At some it is absolutely no issue to have at least vegetarian food, while others have conditions that are obviously unconstitutional.

Furthermore, in Hungary, vegan catering is still deemed as “dangerous for the child health” by most doctors, dietetics and the child protection system workers. These people – unfortunately also including the vast majority of doctors – are still convinced that veganism is dangerous for health, despite obvious scientific proof to the contrary. This fact also shows the backwardness of the whole dietetic healthcare system in Hungary and will undoubtedly impact on food accessibility for Hungarian school children.