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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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This idea of using food or diet to teach larger lessons about health, environment and treatment of animals is an essential part of schools’ attempts to introduce and promote vegetarian meals. Two private schools slated to open in the fall of 2015—Simple Awakenings New York and the Solutionary School—are centered on the idea of “humane education.”  Although New York State Law stipulates that schools teach humane education, it seems to be restricted to the treatment of non-human animals.

These schools, however, define the term broadly. “They’ve got to get people away from thinking that humane education is just about furry animals,” said Bill Gladstone, educational consultant for the Solutionary School. The school’s curriculum is still being drafted and Gladstone said teachers will focus on “environmental stewardship, cultural exchange, human rights, and animal protection.”

Simple Awakenings, on the other hand, is based on the Sanskrit concept of Sattva, or mindfulness. Kala Estrella, the school’s 26-year-old founder, envisions an approach that includes a “vegan/vegetarian diet, child-centered, play-based activities, attention to environment, and a compassionate approach with others and with oneself.”

Science is also becoming increasingly accommodating of vegetarian and vegan choices. The American Dietetic Association reports studies that show vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, hypertension and even lower risk of contracting type 2 diabetes. The American Academy of Pediatrics is more cautious. It warns that nutritional balance is hardest when dairy products are absent altogether. Despite the intake of fruits, vegetables, cereals and legumes, they say strict vegetarians will likely need calcium supplements and pre-prepared food that is fortified with certain vitamins.

Dr. Sharon Akabas, the director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University, believes it is dangerous to automatically associate vegetarianism or veganism with healthy. “You can be a Twinkie vegetarian,” Akabas said. She insists that children should be visiting the pediatrician at least once a year, especially if they are following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

There is one main concern for growing children, Akabas says. Parents must ensure that the number of calories in their child’s diet is sufficient. “The challenges are greater with veganism, because you’ve removed the food groups with vitamin B12 and calcium, and there can be less iron,” Akabas said. But she isn’t too concerned about the menu at P.S. 244, which doesn’t offer junk food. “The worst worry is there’s some kind of deficiency going on that might compromise growth or ability to focus. In general, if a kid is getting enough calories that aren’t coming from junk food, you don’t have to micro-manage the choices,” she said.

Some New York City schools are paying attention to the research supporting a vegetarian diet. The Office of School Food told school-stories.org that they are receiving more and more inquiries from schools asking how the schools can “promote vegetarian choices on the menu.”

It’s unclear if more schools will follow the route taken by P.S. 244. But students at the Flushing school aren’t complaining about their school’s decision to promote fitness and a plant-based diet. “We exercise a lot here, and we always go outside when it’s sunny,” said Andy, an 8-year-old third grader at P.S. 244. He shared that his class’ running club—the Mighty Milers—receives 50 books for the school if his team achieves an average of one mile per student. “In other schools they get fake meat, they even sell candy,” he said, shaking his head. “They want you to pay money for that stuff. For sugar!”

After studying political science and Spanish at U.C. Berkeley, Annette Konoske-Graf moved to Miami, Florida, where she taught ninth and tenth-grade literature in Little Haiti. She is now at Columbia Journalism School.

Aparna Allrui is a freelance print and radio reporter. Originally from India, she is currently ​based in New York, finishing up a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University.