Where do you eat every day, aside from home? Chances are, if you're a student, your answer is the school cafeteria. For many of the young vegheads I interviewed when I was writing The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, this, unfortunately, poses a major problem. The reason: School cafeterias are often not easy places to find a vegetarian meal if you want something more than a cheese sandwich (if you’re vegan or don’t do dairy, as we say in New York—fugheddaboutit!).
When I started hearing about two elementary schools right here in New York City that are making plant-based cafeteria meals the default option for their students, I had to go see them for myself. If so many schools can’t offer any vegetarian options at all, how are these cafeterias pulling off 100% meat-free menus? Are kids subsisting on plain pasta and hot pretzels, falling into energy-less heaps by 3:00? I emailed principal Maggie Siena at P.S. 343, The Peck Slip School, and asked if I could come for a visit. Siena graciously agreed, and even suggested I stop by during lunchtime, so I could see the cafeteria in action. Woohoo!
The lower Manhattan school currently serves children in grades kindergarten through second grade, and will soon move into a renovated building that will give it space to grow into a pre K-5 school. Another exciting addition the new school building will have: A dedicated cafeteria and kitchen, which will allow school chefs to cook food onsite (like many other schools, the food at kitchen-less P.S. 343 is now cooked at another location and shipped to the school to be kept warm for sometimes hours before students will actually eat it—one of many challenges in school food).
So why would a school choose to go vegetarian? The decision was mainly based on a desire to to provide students with nutritious, delicious food to best help them learn, said Principal Siena. The fact that eating a more plant-powered diet can help our health and the environment, contribute to less suffering in the world, and that the food looked pretty good, made it a no-brainer, she said.
Turns out, a meat-free school cafeteria looks and operates pretty much like any other school cafeteria—students being silly, having fun, and nourishing their hard-at-work bodies and minds. The SmartGirlVeg crew (today, myself and our fabulous intern Denise) hung out with some kiddos at the Peck Slip School as they happily munched on their mid-day meals—some from home, some hot lunches (there are no restrictions on what parents can pack from home, as long as it’s peanut-free). A long line of kindergarteners waited patiently for mini empanadas with salsa and confetti corn, a vibrant green salad and peaches in a cup on the side. Denise and I intended to be flies on the wall, but before long we were opening milk containers, taking sporks out of their plastic wrappers, and hearing about a potential illicit lunch swap (“He always asks for my hot dog,” sighed one boy who brought a packed lunch. “But...no trading allowed!”). Kindergarteners talk. And we were happy to listen, especially when it came to their lunches.
Our overall impression: Kids like the food (as for our would-be frankfurter swapper, it seemed to be more about the thrill of the chase than the hot dog itself) and are bursting with energy. They’re not really thinking about the fact that their lunches don’t have meat in them because they look appealing (so many colors!) and it taste good. And anyway, since when do kids—lovers of mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly, generally—require meat at every meal? In our opinion, schools should be safe havens for kids. Places that open up their minds and their worlds. That responsibility doesn’t end once the lunch bell rings. A school that serves its students lentil chili, kale salad (a top hit, according to Principal Siena), roasted cauliflower and BBQ’d tofu—along with more proven kid pleasers like pizza and grilled cheese—is taking their responsibility seriously.
You see, it’s not just about eliminating the meat, though that is super helpful for the vegheads among us (and we would happily eat in this cafeteria daily). Like we always say in The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, shifting to a plant-powered diet is just as much about what you’re adding to your diet as it is what you’re taking away. And when a school removes meat from the cafeteria tray, it now has the opportunity to round out student’s meals with so much more. Kids may not be getting chickpeas and collard greens at home. But in school, they now have the opportunity to get to know these nutrition powerhouses. The chicken fingers will still be available to them when they leave for the day. We're thrilled to see any school have great vegetarian options, but we're excited for the impact school lunches like these can have on students' eating habits over the long-term.
Principal Siena says the vegetarian meals in the cafeteria aren’t really something the teachers and administration make a point of talking about with students. It’s just the food they serve. Our suspicion? Food that tastes good and feels nourishing—which this clearly does—educates growing minds far better than any lecture or lesson plan could.
Bravo to The Plant-Powered Peck Slip School!
So what do you think—is an all-veg cafeteria fair to the omnivore kids? Do you think your cafeteria would ever take the meat-free plunge? Why or why not? We know that going fully vegetarian isn’t going to fly in most places. What suggestions would you make to your cafeteria manager to help your school’s food be more plant-powered?