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Inside the Nation's First Vegetarian Public School

A high-performing elementary school is taking a revolutionary approach to how students eat.

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The folder also includes the school’s progress report. P.S. 244, on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Colden Street, received top marks in 2013 on standardized math and reading tests; it ranked 11 th in the state. A healthy lifestyle focus, Groff believes, is an important element. During its inaugural year in 2008, students approached one of their teachers with a campaign. “They came up to me and said, ‘Look, we’ve been reading the nutrition facts on this chocolate milk, and it has as much sugar and high fructose corn syrup as soda!” said Christian Ledesma, who also serves at the school’s health coordinator.  He worked with two advocacy groups to replace the milk.  “In my mind, the chocolate milk was gone the next day,” he said. “That’s how fast it seemed.”

The school has grown in popularity with the community since it opened. Over the past two years, P.S. 244 received over 400 applications per year to fill 125 kindergarten spots. This year, it received 650 applications.

Since many of the students come from Chinese, Indian, or Muslim backgrounds, they are accustomed to a predominantly vegetarian diet at home, said the school’s parent coordinator. Riva, a third-grade student at P.S. 244 who said she hasn’t gotten sick since becoming a student at P.S. 244, doesn’t see much of a stretch between what she eats at home and what she eats in the school’s cafeteria. “In China, they serve almost the same kind of food as here,” Riva said.

“The vast majority of parents are on board,” Groff added. “Some are in the mindset of, ‘My kid will only eat those certain things,’ but when kids see their friends eating things, when they’re immersed in it, they’ll try it.”

Adopting a vegetarian menu at P.S. 244 required the support of community and advocacy groups like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food. The non-profit introduces plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools. Amie Hamlin, the executive director of the organization, said having a vegetarian school in New York City was her idea. “I asked the school first, ‘Would you consider it?’ The whole purpose of that school is health and fitness—The Active Learning Elementary School.”

Hamlin recognizes that vegetarian diets are not always healthier, especially if they are cheese-based. “The reason P.S. 244 is a healthier menu is because half of the time, entrees are vegan,” she said. Acquiring accurate data on the nutritional value of school food is challenging, she said, because school surveys do not often ask the right questions. Asking if schools offer vegan or vegetarian options doesn’t provide much clarity.

Because all schools offer peanut butter and jelly, cheese sandwiches, or pizza, there are usually vegetarian and vegan options available. But if students select vegan options, Hamlin says, like brown rice, broccoli, and oranges, they are missing an essential component of a meal: the entrée. “The real question is, ‘Do you have a vegan hot entrée?’” Hamlin said. Diet, Hamlin believes, is important for student attendance, student concentration, and student behavior. “When kids eat a totally junky diet, they can’t concentrate as much,” she said.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the national program for school food, introduced new standards for healthier meals during the 2012-2013 school year. A year later, news outlets reported that 524 schools (about 1.5 percent of those registered for federal subsidies) were dropping out of the national program because of cost. In other words, the cost of providing healthier meals outweighed the demand. If schools chose to opt out, and didn’t follow the new standards, they wouldn’t be reimbursed for free or low-cost meals. But most of the schools did meet the new standards.