April 2008 Issue

What’s for Lunch? Schools Bring Vegetarian Options to the Table
By Juliann Schaeffer
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 4 P. 36

Recognizing students’ nutritional needs and preferences, districts across the country are revamping their menus—and receiving kudos for their healthy efforts.

While peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese pizza have long reigned as vegetarian option kings in school cafeterias, the face of the vegetarian meal is starting to change for the better of children’s health—and for good reason. A recent report from Johns Hopkins University predicts that if current trends continue, 24% of children and adolescents will be overweight or obese by 2015. And children enjoying vegetarian lifestyles aren’t necessarily immune to this plight.

Just as labeling a food organic doesn’t make it healthy, saturated fat and cholesterol can easily find their way into a vegetarian school lunch when oily cheese pizza is an afternoon mainstay. “A lot of vegetarian foods aren’t necessarily low in fat or saturated fat, and they can be very high in cholesterol and sodium,” says Susan Levin, MS, RD, a staff nutritionist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). She names cheese pizza as an example: “That to me is not an acceptable alternative to any other junk food like chicken nuggets. Dairy is the No. 1 source of saturated fat in kids’ diets, so you’re not only not getting that out, you’re giving them more.”

But on a brighter note, another trend is also emerging. Not only are more students boarding the meatless train to a vegetarian lifestyle, but schools are also catching on and offering more plentiful and healthful vegetarian options such as Italian pasta fagioli, veggie burger wraps, and build-your-own bean burritos.

With more students screaming for meat-free foods, school foodservice directors are having to fight a double battle: how to increase vegetarian offerings in general and how to make those foods nutrient rich without being saturated fat and calorie dense. Many schools have proven they’re up for the fight and are getting creative to please vegetarian students.

The Back(yard) Story
The School Nutrition Association’s 2007 School Nutrition Operations survey found that 52% of U.S. school districts provided vegetarian entrée options while 16% offered up vegan entrée choices. Just five years ago, the percentage of schools offering vegetarian students an entrée choice was only 33%, so it seems there is no shortage of vegetarian students.

Levin also sees this trend of children jumping on the meat-free wagon, “and I suppose it is stemming from a lot more information about a green environment and the planet. Global warming is definitely a topic not just for adults but for kids, and [vegetarianism is] one of the very tangible things you can do to change your diet. Certainly the ethical treatment of animals is also a popular reason why kids and teens choose to be vegetarian—religious reasons, too—and that’s great.”

Regardless of why, Levin says she is more concerned with making over kids’ diets to include more fruits and veggies and less saturated fat and cholesterol in general. “So whatever it takes to get kids to do that, I’m all for [it],” she says.

And health may well be a reason why more kids are choosing this greener lifestyle. “Plant-based diets are getting more press for their health benefits, and that seems to be trickling down to our teens when they make their dietary choices,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, school nutrition policy coordinator for Los Angeles Unified School District and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

“A well-balanced plant-based diet can help ward off heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, etc. Plant-based diets are also usually higher in fiber, which bodes well for a healthy digestive system,” Giancoli says. And while she admits that choosing a vegetarian diet is a personal choice, “We do know that consuming a plant-based diet is better for our health overall. Therefore, if a teen decides to make that choice and the diet is balanced and well planned out, it can be highly beneficial for that child.”

While schools across the country have been shaping up the health quality of their lunch programs to varying degrees, some are going the extra mile to offer their select bunch of vegetarians plenty of healthy options.

Pinellas County Schools
The 22nd largest school district in the United States, Pinellas County Schools in Florida has menus that regularly include vegetarian items. Last year brought accolades for the district’s “edible” efforts as it was the highest-rated school district in the PCRM’s 2007 School Lunch Report Card program.

Established in 2001, the PCRM’s Healthy School Lunch Campaign aims to highlight the important influence that school lunches have on childhood health. Each year, its dietitians evaluate the meals served in the National School Lunch Program based on three criteria: obesity and chronic disease prevention, health promotion and nutrition adequacy, and nutrition initiatives. Since 2001, the PCRM notes an increase in the availability of healthful vegetarian and vegan entrées in some school districts, with its dietitians noting 64% of their surveyed districts regularly featuring vegan selections either on the menu or by request.

Scoring the highest report card grade of all 22 surveyed districts, Pinellas County received a 94% A from the PCRM this year, and its array of vegetarian options surely impressed. In addition to these options, which include black beans and rice, vegetarian chili, and a veggie burger wrap sandwich, Pinellas County goes one step farther and provides foods for its vegan students as well.

Giancoli knows how challenging it is to ensure vegan students get adequate nutrition and admits, “The school lunch is tough for vegan students to navigate.” But Pinellas County, which has put together an index of vegan options for all of its schools, offers a variety of vegan and side salads, and a low-fat, hot vegetable side is available daily. For students who are looking for a milk alternative, the district offers free juice, or soy milk is available for purchase. According to the PCRM, 73% of school districts are now offering students an alternative to dairy milk: bottled water, juice, or soy milk.

Oakland Unified School District
Expanding its healthful and vegetarian options, Oakland Unified School District in California received the PCRM’s award for most improved school district, increasing its score by nine points in the past year from a 75% C in 2006 to an 84% B in 2007.

“Vegetarian options are offered daily during lunch for K through 12,” says Troy Flint, a spokesperson for the school district. “Some options are vegetarian burgers, yogurt, and bean and cheese burritos.” The district’s menu includes the old-school peanut butter and jelly sandwich as well and clearly labels all vegetarian options with a (v).

The district has also increased the number of fresh fruit and low-fat veggie sides available daily, adding stir-fried vegetables, baby carrots, and a Harvest of the Month option (a local, seasonal item) to the menu. And for thirsty students, Oakland recently implemented a free bottled water program in two of its schools, hoping to expand the program to 30 schools in the coming year.

Flint adds that Oakland’s vegetarian choices don’t begin and end at lunch. “Vegetarian options are offered daily during breakfast for K through 12. Some options are vegetarian sausage sandwiches, scrambled eggs, hot cereals, and omelets. These are warmly received as well,” he says, adding that the district’s entire after-school snack menu is also vegetarian.

Oakland is getting creative to entice not just vegetarian but all students to see the splendor of fruits and veggies with its school garden program. “The district received roughly 80 grants from the CDE [California Department of Education] for school gardens and is in the process of developing these green spaces,” says Flint. And although Oakland won’t be able to serve the harvested produce due to food safety issues, the district hopes to use the produce for presentation at the salad bars to remind children what benefits they bring. “We believe by highlighting their harvest, we will continue the education process and stress the importance of a healthy diet,” he says.

Levin agrees, noting that research has shown that when kids are connected to food, they’re more likely to eat it. “So if a kid sees a seed go into the ground and it becomes okra, and they have the fortune to go into the kitchen and help cook okra, when the cafeteria serves the okra, they’re more likely to take it and more likely to eat it. They’re also more likely to go home and say to the mom or the dad or whoever does the grocery shopping, ‘Can we get some okra?’”

Fairfax County School District
Penny McConnell, MS, RD, SNS, food and nutrition services director for Fairfax County Schools in Virginia, wasn’t surprised by the A the schools received on the PCRM’s School Lunch Report Card. According to McConnell, Fairfax has been a leader for years in regard to nutrition and vegetarian selections. “In Fairfax County for several years now, we’ve been trying to expand our vegetarian options,” she says.

But the county won’t throw just any options on the menu. New vegetarian items at Fairfax must be given the green light by students before they hit the menu. “What we do is we research the market, and then we test new products out with the students at student taste parties. And if they pass it, then we’ll put it on the menu,” McConnell explains. “For example, we did do a vegetarian pizza, but it has not been popular. So we have dropped that one. Even though it passed a taste party, you have to also make sure that when you serve it, the children are going to accept it as well.”

Entrée selections for meatless eaters at Fairfax include a vegetarian pocket, pasta with marinara sauce, and additional items upon request. All sides are low in fat, with a wide variety ranging from fresh broccoli and baked beans to kiwi and orange quarters. “What we try to do is at least have one vegetarian-type option every day,” says McConnell.

She admits, however, that vegan students have the hardest dietary needs to meet. “Our challenge is to meet the vegan, and that’s a very difficult one. If we have a vegan, then we allow them to get more of the vegetables and fruits options to make up the lunch,” she says.

Fairfax adds brown rice to whole grain/wheat breads and pizza crust and is starting to introduce couscous to its menu. The county recently designed a Hummus Biteable lunch that it started piloting at a high school in March, and it also offers students soy milk for 75 cents. “Our kids have a lot of options every day,” she says. And although Fairfax doesn’t have salad bars because it experienced food tampering in the past, “We have at least two premade chef salads or fruit salads every day.”

For students who can never get enough produce, the district promotes fruits and vegetables through its Give Me 5! Colors That Jive! program, for which it’s won national awards. “We highlight a different fruit and vegetable on the menu every month,” she says, adding that for February, cherries were highlighted for Presidents’ Day.

McConnell adds that when thinking of a niche group of students such as vegetarians, food preparation and quality must be considered. “For example, with the veggie burger, you have to make sure you only prepare one or two at a time because they’ll dry out. So it’s hard to do the individual preparation, and it’s hard to predict when we don’t know in advance what students are going to select that day,” she says.

Healthy Innovation
Even when schools aren’t catering specifically to vegetarians, steering a lunch menu toward healthy alternatives can give meatless eaters more variety by default. In Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California, a farmers’ market fresh fruit and salad bar was launched 10 years ago as part of the school’s regular foodservice lunch program. Offering fresh fruits and vegetables purchased directly from farmers at local farmers’ markets, the program gives students access to the freshest produce available. Providing multiple options daily of bread, milk, protein, fruit, and vegetables satisfies vegetarian students’ taste for variety.

Also in California, San Luis Obispo County is making pizza crust from garbanzo beans and chia seed flour while offering up fresh grapes, jicama, and kiwi to students. And Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia offers brown pasta, brown rice, and whole grain sandwich buns, with daily vegetarian options such as vegetable lasagna, hummus with pita bread, and Italian and taco hot pockets made with soy.

A Veggie-Filled Future
Although there are many U.S. school districts working toward giving vegetarian and all students more healthful options, there is still work to be done. Levin hopes the School Lunch Report Card program will not only praise those districts doing well but also encourage those that are not.

“It’s not so much to show how bad [certain districts are], it’s more to look at the potential that is there when you’re operating within the National School Lunch Program. Even if it is difficult to get to that A level, it is possible,” she says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention School Health Policies and Programs Study, 78.8% of surveyed schools had vegetarian students and 66% made changes for those students. While a promising statistic for an upward trend, what’s recommended to parents of students whose schools aren’t so proactive? Speak up.

“Schools want to hear from their students and the parents,” says Levin. “I would really recommend to get involved in the PTA or talk to a principal or superintendent. And kids might feel voiceless, but they’re not. [School lunches are] just like any other capitalist business: Demand will affect supply, so demand what you want.”

Juliann Schaeffer is an editorial assistant at Today’s Dietitian.

Schools’ Good Intentions and Caloric Consequences
Erik Peterson, director of public awareness for the School Nutrition Association, recognizes the obstacles that U.S. schools need to overcome in the National School Lunch Program. “School lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” he says. “Over one week of menus, meals must average no more than 30% of calories from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.”

School lunches must also meet federal nutrition requirements, meaning meals must provide one third of macronutrients and micronutrients for a day, which Susan Levin, MS, RD, a staff nutritionist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says puts schools in a tough spot, especially those trying to expand their vegetarian options. “A lot of times—and this is a problem—[schools] are having to really up the calories in foods because they’re not meeting that one third requirement, so that’s why they tend to throw more fat into food unnecessarily just to get the calories up. It’s unfortunate because you don’t have to be a dietitian to see that kids aren’t lacking in calories—they need more nutrients.

“And I’ve talked to foodservice directors and they’re frustrated, saying, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t give kids fruits and vegetables. There’s not enough calories in there.’ And they recognize the irony of the problem, but the government will come in and say, ‘This is an unacceptable lunch,’ basically because it’s too healthy. So what you have here is schools upping calories, giving too much fat, and not only is that incredibly unhealthy, it’s unnecessary. We could be doing so much better by kids,” she argues.

Peterson says that while there are exceptions, he sees many schools are overcoming today’s regulations and are serving more healthy meals, including more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy than ever before.

“That being said, challenges remain, as does room for improvement,” he admits. “Because school nutrition programs are required to be financially independent, they must balance nutrition, children’s tastes, and financial pressure. The average cost to prepare a school meal currently is about $3.10. The funds available from federal reimbursement and the average cost students pay for a meal is about $2.40. Labor costs, food costs, and milk costs all continue to increase. Whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables are also more costly.”

School nutrition professionals nationwide are currently waiting for new school meal pattern requirements to be issued from the USDA reflecting the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which many hope will decrease the one third calorie requirement, allowing more low-calorie and nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables.

However, while they wait, Peterson says many school nutrition professionals have been moving forward with the updated dietary recommendations on their own: “offering more whole grains and fruits and vegetables and less sodium while phasing out trans fats. A key challenge on the regulation side is meeting the calorie goal while reducing fat and sugar. Calorie ranges are expected when the new meal pattern requirements are proposed,” he explains.