School lunches have been getting a makeover in school districts across the country, but few have gone to the extraordinary step of Public School 244 in Flushing, New York. This school has done away with meat completely in its school lunch program, becoming the first vegetarian school cafeteria in the state and across the country. Surprisingly, students don’t seem to miss their chicken nuggets and “mystery meat Thursdays,” preferring the highly nutritious – and completely delicious – menu selections they can enjoy every school day.
Moving to a Meatless Menu
NBC News reports that P.S. 244 made the move to a meatless menu somewhat gradually. The school opened in 2008 and began serving a few vegetarian meals in the beginning, to see how students responded to the menu. School staff began noticing that many students were bringing vegetarian lunches, rather than purchasing the meaty fare at the cafeteria, and the move to meatless was born. Slowly, typical student lunches like chicken nuggets were replaced with entrees made up of tofu, beans and pasta.
P.S. 244 was the perfect school to begin such an experiment in Flushing. The large majority of students in the school are from either Asian or Hispanic descent, where rice and other vegetarian choices make up a large portion of the menu at home. The school’s head cook is also a vegetarian and parent at the school. To transition students to a similar menu at school was not exactly impossible. In fact, many students embraced the change and now rave about many selections like other school children salivate over pizza on Friday.
“Whoever thought they would hear a third-grader saying that they like tofu and Chinese noodles?” New York Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott asked CNN. But that particular selection happens to be a favorite for many of the pre-K to third-grade students at the school.
This video reports on the first U.S. school to go vegetarian.
A Culture of Health
P.S. 244 opened on the premise that healthy students create high academic achievers. Principal Robert Groff explained to the New York Daily News, “We believe that, if we taught kids to make healthy choices, it would help them grow as students and well-rounded children.”
To develop a fully vegetarian menu, P.S. 244 partnered with the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, a non-profit organization that promotes healthier school meals. Amie Hamlin, executive director for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food told NBC, “We know that when students eat a healthy diet, they’re able to focus better. Their immune systems are stronger, so they’re sick less, and then they’re in school more and they’re able to focus and concentrate better, and therefore learn better. There’s research about that.”
School staff also selected a handful of students to test out new vegetarian recipes. The students provided feedback for the selections, and menu options were tweaked accordingly. The result is a menu that is as surprisingly kid-friendly as it is healthy.
The move to vegetarian by the Flushing school is also in line with the efforts by New York City Mayor Bloomberg to create a healthier culture in school cafeterias across the city. Now, New York schools are serving more whole-grain bread and pasta, and salad bars have been installed in more than half of all the schools in NYC. P.S. 244 has taken healthy eating to a new level, which might be adopted by other schools in the future.
This video from CBN News reports on a New York City elementary school going vegetarian.
Not All Tofu
Some of the favourite selections at the P.S. 244 cafeteria include black bean and cheddar quesadillas, roasted potatoes with salsa, and tofu roasted in Asian sesame sauce. The fare follows the same USDA guidelines as other school cafeterias across the country, with sufficient nutrients, including protein, in every meal. To replace the protein lost from meat selection, the school has opted for protein-rich beans and tofu, which are cooked with seasonings and other ingredients that students quickly learn to love.
However, P.S. 244 also maintains some of the traditional school cafeteria selections amid vegetable wraps and bean salads. Pizza is still offered at the school once a week, but without pepperoni. The school also includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables with every meal. Students that get breakfast at school will also enjoy a meatless menu that includes egg dishes, bagels and cream cheese and even waffles.
Reaction to the New Menu
Groff told ABC News that most of the menu items have been a hit with students. Parents have also expressed their approval. However, children who do not wish to participate in the cafeteria experiment are always welcome to bring their own lunches, meat included. Groff said giving the children and their parents options has made all the difference to how well the new menu was received.
Chancellor Walcott recently visited the school to find out firsthand what the vegetarian meals looked – and tasted – like. The New York Daily News cites the fact that Walcott has long touted the benefits of healthy living himself, and is pleased to see students in his schools doing the same.
“I don’t eat fried food. I don’t drink soda. I try not to have sweets too often,” Walcott told the New York Post as he sat down with P.S. 244 students to enjoy his vegetarian fare. “And that’s what we want for our students…to make sure they eat healthy both at home and at school,” Walcott added.
P.S. 244 may be the first school in the country to go completely vegetarian, but it may not be the last. Other schools will be watching closely to see whether a vegetarian menu might be the best option for their students as well.
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