- Education and Science
Meatless Meals - First Vegetarian Public School
Leaving out the meat
No more mystery meat at P.S. 244. In fact, there is no more meat at all offered at this Flushing, Queens public school. Public School 244, the Active Learning Elementary School, opened in 2008. The school serves just over 400 children from pre-kindergarten through grade three. It appears to be the first public school in the nation which offers only vegetarian meal choices.
When administrators noticed a higher than average number of vegetarian meal choices in the cafeteria, they began offering vegetarian fare three times a week. Many of the students in this multi-ethnic and diverse socioeconomic school are already eating mostly vegetarian meals at home.
Vegetarian meal choices do not include meat but do include grains, vegetables, fruits, eggs and dairy products. There are many different sub-categories of vegetarian lifestyles which include different food consumption choices. Ovo-vegetarians do not consume dairy products but do eat eggs. Lacto-vegetarians do not eat eggs but do eat dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Strict vegans do not consume any animal products including dairy, honey, eggs or beeswax.
The school campus became a test kitchen in partnership with the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food organization. The cafeteria began by offering vegetarian meals three days a week. Once the success of having vegetarian meals three days a week was established, the cafeteria switched from all vegetarian fare three days a week to four days a week. In January 2013 the school cafeteria went fully vegetarian.
The USDA’s standards for school lunches continues to be followed so students still receive the recommended amounts of protein and nutrients. All school meals including both breakfast and lunch are required to meet dietary minimum and maximum specifications of calories, nutrients, saturated fat and sodium.
These USDA dietary standards are calculated on the age and grade of the students and offer varying specifications based on these factors and the type of meal being offered. Breakfast choices typically offer slightly lower calorie counts than lunch meals and the amounts of calories, proteins, and sodium allowances will vary.
The school offers such choices as black bean quesadillas, falafel, vegetarian chili, cucumber salad, plantains, roasted potatoes, salsa, and brown rice. There are choices available to the students such as salads or alternate meals such as the childhood standard PB&J. The school has tried different recipes and foods to see what the children enjoy that remain adherent to the nutritional guidelines. They look for feedback on the meals from the students.
Because P.S.244 is a test kitchen school, students convinced school chefs to switch from large, square, unseasoned chunks of tofu to smaller, seasoned bite sized pieces. They now receive items such as noodles served with tofu either roasted in Asian sesame sauce or seasoned with jerk sauce.
A typical breakfast menu would offer whole-grain sunrise carrot bread with hot cereal or a fluffy egg omelet with melted cheese. Waffles with warm syrup also make an appearance at breakfast time. Fresh fruits, cereals, juices, and milk are also offered with a standard breakfast meal.
Although the food choices may seem both exotic and exceptional, one must remember that this isn’t either an upscale restaurant or a posh private school. This is a Queens, NY public school, P.S. 244, and the first known public school in the nation to provide an all-vegetarian cafeteria. Most public elementary schools in New York offer some vegetarian options but only about half the schools are currently offering salad bars. The current guidelines utilize fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but most main dishes, and the protein requirements, still come from meat.
This isn’t about taking away choices for the children or forcing them to adapt to a lifestyle they (or their parents) don’t choose. The menu offers childhood staples such as peanut-butter & jelly or cheese sandwiches as alternatives on a daily basis. Fridays remain pizza day, albeit without the pepperoni. It appears that most parents, and the students, have greeted this change with warmth and even enthusiasm. For those families who wish different meal choices, children are encouraged and welcome to bring a bagged lunch from home.
Healthy school recipes
Eating healthy foods and getting exercise promotes better attention, better health, and better grades. A healthy diet can reduce the risk of many diseases and help one maintain a better weight. Brain function may be increased and the immune system boosted. The benefits of eating better are many and can last a lifetime.
While there are many healthy food choices available, whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables remain at the top of the list. The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (NYCHFS) has provided a website with recipes. A number of these recipes can be found in public schools across the state.