By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture.
Cafeteria food has long upheld an unfavorable reputation. In movies, school food is usually depicted as a slab of something meat-like, a few piles of shapeless vegetables, and a juice carton. The reality for many schools isn’t much of a different picture.
There is one school in Lower Manhattan, however, that has chosen to break the mold. Last month, Peck Slip School became the second school in the city to offer a completely vegetarian cafeteria menu. The school has been serving vegetarian fare since 2013, but now the menu is completely vegetarian. Three days out of the week, the school serves strictly plant-based food. The other two days, vegetarian.
It might be tempting to assume that the city’s health board–along similar lines as last year’s attempt to ban large sodas in New York–imposed the change. However, it was actually the school’s decision to make the dietary shift.
After hearing about Flushing, Queens Public School 244’s new meat-free menu, Peck Slip’s principal Maggie Siena decided to follow suit. BTR got a chance to speak with Amie Hamlin, Executive Director at the Coalition of Healthy School Food, about Peck Slip’s transition into a completely plant-based school setting.
Once support was garnered from the administration and parents, Peck Slip contacted the Office of School Food, an organization that works closely with the Coalition of Healthy School Food in finding well-rounded and nutritious recipes that kids will enjoy. One of the main goals of these organizations is finding ways for children to get more fruits and vegetables into their diets.
“[Providing healthy food] is so important, especially for kids who depend on schools to be their primary source of nourishment,” Hamlin explains.
Many children depend on school-provided food for at least two meals out of their day, sometimes even three. By cutting out meat and all animal byproducts aside from milk, school cafeterias are able to provide nutritious meals without the unnecessary saturated fat and cholesterol.
As Hamlin relayed, US Dietary Guidelines–specifically the “choose my plate” guide–shows that at least 3/4 of a balanced plate should be plant-based food. The government dietary website also shows that the remaining portion of the plate is “protein” which can also be completed with plant-based food items.
Additionally, Hamlin alleges that a third of all children in the US born in 2000 will get Type II Diabetes in their lifetime, something she believes is strongly attributed to the highly-processed diet many children keep. Children that consume highly-processed meals often develop fatty streaks in their arteries, increased cholesterol levels, and lowered blood pressure. Consequently, they are put on very powerful medications with equally powerful side effects.
Hamlin believes with the right diet, these conditions are extremely preventable, and exposing children to better options within their school setting can be a pivotal turning point in their health.
Although Hamlin cannot guarantee that the diet was a direct causation, both PS 244 and Peck Slip School have had increased attendance and higher test scores since implementing the change, according to school officials. PS 244 was also found to be the school with the 11th highest test scores in the city. The other top 10 schools all had gifted student programs. PS 244 does not. Hamlin believes the numbers demonstrate the school’s commitment to academics and health and that they “understand the connection between the two.”
“The New York City Office of School Food chose true leadership,” Hamlin reiterates. “I think that others around the country can look to them and say they are feeding almost a million meals a day, if they can do this, we can do this.”