California Passes Law Requiring Vegan Meals in Prisons and Hospitals

by Gabrielle Khalife
Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy Name: California Senate Bill 1138



Population: 39.5M (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017)

Overview: On September 18, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senator Nancy Skinner’s (D-Berkeley) Senate Bill 1138, which requires California hospitals, healthcare facilities and state prisons to offer at least one vegan option at every meal. The bill states that “access to nutritious food that meets health or cultural needs is a basic human right.” Individuals who are confined to prisons, hospitals or healthcare facilities aren’t always given the opportunity to choose meatless options – whether they wish to do so for health, environmental or personal reasons. Public institutions are already required to provide halal, vegetarian and kosher options on the menu – SB 1138 requires that vegan options be added to the list.

According to Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “California is leading the nation by acting on the American Medical Association and the American College of Cardiology recommendations for plant-based meals. Providing plant-based meals won’t just help patients and prisoners fight obesity, diabetes, and heart disease; it could save hospitals and prisons thousands of dollars a year.”

Recently, several government institutions have been taking action to promote plant-based diets. Just three weeks ago, the City of Berkeley passed the Green Mondays resolution, calling for City owned and operated institutions to serve only plant-based foods, without meat or dairy, on Mondays. The Green Mondays resolution was proposed as a viable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In New York City, a pilot program that emphasizes using plant-based food as a form of preventive medicine – known as the Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program – was recently launched at Bellevue Hospital. Click here to learn more.

Progress to date:

In June 2017, the American Medical Association passed a Healthy Food Options in Hospitals resolution that calls on US hospitals to improve the health of patients, staff and visitors by providing plant-based meals. The American College of Cardiology made similar recommendations in Planting a Seed: Heart-Healthy Food Recommendations for Hospitals.

In response to these recommendations, Senator Nancy Skinner authored SB 1138 in February with support from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and Social Compassion in Legislation (SCIL) – two plant-based non-profit organizations lobbying for political action to improve the population’s health and animal welfare. It was passed 69-9 in the California Assembly on August 29, 2018 and signed into law on September 18, 2018 by California Governor Jerry Brown.

Program/Policy Initiated: September 18, 2018

Food policy category: Diet/Nutrition

Program goals: To provide equal access to nutritious foods that meet the health or cultural needs of patients and incarcerated individuals

How it works:

SB 1138 states that “public institutions such as licensed health care facilities and state prisons that provide food to ‘captive audiences’ have a particular responsibility to provide a diversity of healthy meals that are acceptable to most religions, those with ethical dietary beliefs, and those with known food sensitivities.”

The bill requires licensed professionals (e.g. dietitians) in hospitals and healthcare facilities to make wholesome vegan meals available for patients, in accordance with their physicians’ orders. The bill also calls on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a plan to make vegan meals available to inmates, on an overall cost-neutral basis (See Senate Floor Analysis).

SB 1138 does not require the creation of extensive new menus – only that at least one vegan meal option be made available at every meal.

Why it is important:

While many public institutions in California provide vegetarian or vegan options, offering these options has not been required at hospitals and/or prisons before the passage of SB 1138. Providing a vegan meal option ensures that religious, ethical or dietary needs are respected. Although ensuring equal access to preferred food options in these institutional settings is the primary goal of SB 1138, its passing comes with several benefits to both the population’s health and the environment.

According to Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “If you ever were concerned about somebody who was in the hospital, maybe for a heart problem, and the next morning, the breakfast tray arrives, piled high with sausage, and bacon, and scrambled eggs, and lots of unhealthy foods, the very foods that got them there in the first place, and you’re wondering, why don’t hospitals serve anything healthy, today is a whole new day.” Increasing availability of wholesome vegan options will help to reduce both the prevalence and incidence of diet-related chronic diseases in individuals who are confined to prisons, hospitals or health care facilities, and it will also help the state meet its water conservation goals because plants require less water than animal products. In addition, the required dietary changes will further help the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Implementation: Licensed professionals are responsible for making wholesome vegan meals available in hospitals and healthcare facilities. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is responsible for developing a plan to make these meals available to inmates.

Learn more:

Point of Contact:

Senator Nancy Skinner

State District 9

Contact Form

Similar practices:

In June 2014, Good Food, Healthy Hospitals was launched as an initiative to transform Philadelphia’s hospital food environment and promote healthy foods and beverages for patients, staff and visitors. The program’s approach is based on the concept that good food is good health care. Ensuring that staff, patients and visitors have access to fresh, healthy and environmentally sustainable food in hospitals is a reflection of the Philadelphia health system’s commitment to preventative care and an opportunity to reduce the risk of chronic disease for thousands of citizens. Read more.


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