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Public School Vegetarian Menu Still a Hit After Two Years

By David Yeager

There’s no shortage of jokes when it comes to the food served in schools, but most nutrition professionals agree that people need to take the foods offered to students more seriously. In the fall of 2013, Peck Slip School in New York City took a big step in that direction by becoming the second school in New York City to adopt an all-vegetarian menu; the first was PS 244Q in Flushing, Queens, New York.

With help from the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, a nonprofit organization that introduces plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools, the schools transitioned away from meat and toward plant-based fare. Amie Hamlin, executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, says more people are coming to the realization that plant-based diets are good for population health.

“There’s this increasing recognition that a more plant-based diet is healthier, and it’s science based,” Hamlin says. “The position papers on vegetarian diets that have been done by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have clearly shown that a whole foods, plant-based, vegetarian diet, but even more so a vegan diet, results in lower rates of basically all of the diet-related diseases [such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes].”

Easy Transition
When Maggie Siena, Peck Slip’s principal, learned that PS 244Q had switched to an all-vegetarian menu, she decided to follow suit. She says the transition has been seamless. Peck Slip started the menu when its older students were in the first grade and, over the past two years, they’ve become accustomed to it. Rather than make a big deal about the new menu, Siena says Peck Slip opted to implement it with little fanfare. With options such as macaroni and cheese with barbecued beans; lo mein and an eggroll with teriyaki tofu; butternut squash ravioli with pesto; chickpeas, brown basmati rice, and roasted cauliflower; and quesadillas, most students have barely noticed that they aren’t served chicken nuggets anymore.

“The feedback from the kids has been pretty nonchalant. It’s been a pretty quiet change,” Siena says. “We’ve found that if you put different types of food in front of kids enough times, they will really expand their palates. And the fact that our kids are getting one less meal with meat and being exposed to other sources of protein on a regular basis is very appealing to me. We’re very happy to continue with the vegetarian menu.”

Menu Development
Peck Slip and PS 244Q have eliminated meat, making approximately one-half of the menu items plant-based or vegan. Hamlin says most schools in the country typically offer a meat- or cheese-based meal to fulfill protein requirements. The most common options are meat, cheese, and peanut butter. She says those schools could, however, provide a variety of legumes or tofu to satisfy protein requirements. The schools also have the option of offering foods that carry Child Nutrition labels, which are authorized by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

The New York City Office of SchoolFood (SchoolFood), which oversees menu planning for all of the public schools in New York City, planned vegetarian and alternative menus for Peck Slip School with input from the Coalition for Healthy School Food. The meals on the vegetarian menu are designed to be not only vegetarian but also less processed than typical school fare. There’s an alternative menu with meals that eliminate beef and pork and may include a bean or tofu option. SchoolFood makes an effort to purchase local, regional, or New York state products, whenever possible.

Hamlin says creating vegetarian menus isn’t especially difficult. What’s challenging is changing the perceptions of kids. She has found that children either eat a reasonably healthful diet at home, and when they’re at school they gravitate toward foods they don’t get at home, or they mostly eat highly processed foods at home and aren’t used to homemade food. In either case, her experience has taught her that engaging the students by having them grow food in a garden, offering cooking classes, or providing samples can encourage them to try new foods. The food’s presentation also has a significant effect on whether kids will try a healthful dish with which they’re unfamiliar. It not only has to taste good; it has to look good so kids will choose it.

“In Ithaca, where we also have a program, we were trying a pizza with a bean spread and salsa/pesto mixture on top, called Tuscan Tomato Pie. The foodservice manager asked the first group that came through the cafeteria line if they wanted to try it, and only one student did,” Hamlin says. “But when we went out to the cafeteria line and said, ‘Chef Dean is here today, and he made some real Italian homemade pizza, who wants to try it?’ about 10 out of 15 kids put their hands up immediately. Every kid who tried it loved it. And they were all kids who had initially turned it down.”

To make school meals more healthful and interesting, SchoolFood is always looking for new items to add to its offerings. They employ culinary teams with chefs that test new recipes and products. They also bring in kids from different age groups and various schools to test the new recipes. Siena provides regular feedback on what’s working and what needs improvement. “They were making a wrap that had spinach in it, and it was just kind of a big chunk of spinach. It just didn’t taste good,” Siena says. “They were very kind and [accepted] our feedback and revisited the recipe, and it’s a lot better now.”

Hamlin says school foodservice directors have to contend with small budgets and many regulations, but partnering with nonprofit organizations that specialize in school nutrition can make their jobs a little easier. The most important thing, she says, is to ensure that all school meal choices are healthful choices.

“The principals of both schools are visionaries; they’re very forward thinking,” Hamlin says. “Healthy kids are going to be more prepared to focus and learn. When kids are eating junk food, they cannot concentrate, and they get sick more often, which causes them to miss more school. You also see fewer disciplinary problems when kids are eating healthfully. And most of these meals are paid for with our tax dollars. The purpose of those tax dollars is to provide healthful meals, so let’s make sure those meals are as healthful as they can be.”

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor living in southeastern Pennsylvania.