Inside the Nation's First Vegetarian Public School
Photo Credit: School Stories/Annette Konoske-Graf
Thursday is always vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, in the cafeteria at Public School 244 in Queens, the nation’s first non-charter public school to serve only vegetarian meals. The 428 pre-kindergartners through third graders lined up at the salad bar and catered bins of jasmine rice, three-bean chili and steamed plantains, with an apple and oatmeal raisin cookie for dessert. None of the children, who live in the surrounding Korean and Asian-American neighborhoods of Flushing, seemed to clamor for the more typical school fare of hot dogs or fried chicken nuggets on that March afternoon. “We don’t necessarily want to promote a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but you kind of get the message,” said one of the schools’ teachers, Christian Ledesma.
The idea to go meatless came about organically, so to speak, when teachers and staff at the 6-year old elementary school began paying attention to the lunches children were bringing from home. Eighty-six percent of the children are from Asian-American families, and most were toting vegetarian food in their lunch pails.
Principal Robert Groff, a former Teach For America corps member in the Bronx, co-founded the school around the idea of promoting a healthy lifestyle, which in turn bolsters academic excellence. It’s not about diet, Groff said, but about something broader. An early school partner was Fan4Kids, a nonprofit with corporate sponsorship that targets low-income elementary school children with lessons on good nutrition and activity.
The vegetarian emphasis in P.S. 244: The Active Learning Elementary School reflects what may be a growing trend outside city schools and across the country. Meat is becoming slightly less popular in the American diet in recent years. The Department of Agriculture reported that Americans consumed 12 percent less meat in 2012 than five years earlier. Forbes Magazine named high-end vegan food the number one food trend last year.
From 2009 to 2011, the percentage of vegetarian households rose to 5 percent, representing a 2 percent jump. Vegan diets doubled from 1 to 2.5 percent (equivalent to the number of people living in Los Angeles County). In addition, according to the a 2011 Harris Interactive Study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, an advocacy group, 17 percent of Americans consider themselves “flexitarian,” or those who elect a vegetarian diet for more than half of their meals.
Public schools for the most part have been slow to catch up. Still, in September last year, San Diego Unified School District adopted “Meatless Monday” in its elementary schools, when they serve plant-based meals to its kindergarten through fifth graders. Gary Petill is the director of the district’s food services, and said they jumped on the opportunity to educate young students about a plant-based diet. “We decided on K-5, because young children are learning lifelong eating habits,” Petill said. “We might get push-back in high school. With Meatless Monday, when the fifth-graders go to middle school, they may be more open to vegetarian options.”
In New York City, P.S. 244 is one of two public schools that serve vegetarian food only. The Peck Slip School M 343, located inside the former Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s (DOE) headquarters in Brooklyn, is also offering a vegetarian menu. The school, which opened in September 2013, has classes from pre-K through the first grade. It plans to expand up to the fifth grade.
On one of the vegan menu days at P.S. 244, Groff wore a striped button-up shirt and a blue tie, his brown curly hair neatly arranged with hair gel. In his office is a bookshelf stuffed with folders. One pile is dedicated to visiting parents and media, and includes an invitation to family dinner night and a calendar that provides the cafeteria menu for every day of the month. Each day includes an “eat your colors” section—students are encouraged to eat a variety of vegetables, including carrot sticks, cucumber salad, and Brooklyn baked beans.
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 11th 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.
When P.S. 244 first turned vegetarian, it did cost them a little more, said Lalita Kovvuri, the school’s parent coordinator. “But introducing a vegetarian option city-wide might have gotten those costs down,” she said.
Hamlin said it doesn’t cost schools more to provide vegetarian meals. “If it did, schools wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said, in an email correspondence. “All they are doing is replacing meat with beans or tofu. Both cheap, and beans are available through the commodities program, which means essentially free.” She added that because cheese, fruits and vegetables are on all menus, there is no cost differential for those foods.
Cafeterias aren’t the only place where schools are trying to improve nutrition. At P.S. 216 in Brooklyn, Principal Arturo Toscanini has his kindergarten through fifth graders grow a vegetable each month and then prepare a meal from it. The program, the Edible Schoolyard NYC, is run by a non-profit of the same name in two schools in New York City—P.S. 216 and P.S. 7 Samuel Stern in Harlem. In Brooklyn, the program grew out of a classroom and moved into a greenhouse funded by the school district. The greenhouse sits behind the school building on a half-acre organic farm that used to be a parking lot.
Liza Engelberg, the program’s education director, looks over the farm with pride. Plants are sprouting in neat rows marked by labels on sticks. Even thyme and magnolia have been planted to ensure the students have access to a diverse garden. The greenhouse includes a roomy, colorful kitchen and an office where Engelberg and her staff—made up of four teachers—work.
Each of the school’s 600 children cooks one dish a month in the greenhouse kitchen. The recipes change with the season. In the winter, for instance, students made soups. Now that spring is approaching, they are switching to bean dip. “Our focus is on seasonal, locally grown food,” said Engelberg.
“Eighty-seven percent of the kids try every recipe because they are attached to it,” said Engelberg. And almost all of those who try the food end up liking it, she added.
The edible schoolyard has no relationship with the school’s cafeteria. The idea is to teach children about the impact of farming and food choices. The kids, Engelberg said, are now calling it their “food footprint.” But since the children only cook what they grow, the recipes are both vegetarian and vegan. “We are thinking of having chickens so we can add eggs,” said Engelberg. She doesn’t readily see how poultry or meat could be a part of the project, but she admits that as a staff, they “do have conversations about it.”
“We are not demonizing other kinds of food,” said Engelberg, referring to children eating poultry and meat at home. She said she realizes the challenges public schools face, especially when so many children live in temporary housing and have little or no access to healthy food. “We try and entice them to eat healthy as much as possible,” she said.
She also said the curriculum is aligned to the Common Core, the new education standards being introduced in schools across the country. By that she means that the process of planting, nurturing, picking and cooking a fruit, vegetable or herb teaches students useful lessons in science, social studies, math and even literacy. When they farm they learn the science of plants and seasons, Engelberg said, while cooking can be a mathematical process. They include history by teaching about the “three sisters,” a Native American tradition of growing maize, squash and certain kinds of beans. “And reading a recipe and understanding it is about literacy,” she added.
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!”