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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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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.