Cutting-edge Schools Think out of the Lunchbox, Increase Vegetarian Options

by Sammy
Caiola

Native Foods Cafe

 

As much as
we hate to admit it, summer’s on its way out. It’s August, and the rush for
back-to-school supplies is growing near. For some parents, this means
restocking the fridge with triangle-cut whole wheat sandwiches, natural fruit
juice boxes and healthy portable snacks. But for others, the fate of their
child’s health—so much as it’s affected by daily lunch—rests with the school
nutrition staff, a fact that was once daunting but now holds promise. 

‘School
lunch’ once meant compartmentalized trays piled with frozen pizza or mystery
meat and coolers of unwanted whole milk cartons. Brown bagging it always
seemed, at least to me and my health-conscious mother, the safer option. But
now, thanks to a revolutionary program called Meatless Mondays and a few
health-positive school districts, America’s schools may finally be rethinking
what they put on kids’ plates.

And it’s
about time. The U.S. obesity rate has been climbing steadily for the past two
decades, and the Center for Disease Control now reports that
more than one third
of our nation’s youth are overweight or obese. Thanks to Michelle Obama’s
“Let’s Move” campaign and the
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act
that she pushed forward in 2010, that number
is headed downward. In order to keep it that way, kids need access to healthy
food at all times—school included. The USDA’s new school nutritional standards
(they just changed for the first time in
15
years
), puts limitations on calories, saturated fat and sodium and mandates
a certain amount of whole grains, non-fat dairy and fruits/vegetables per meal.
Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? More veggies and whole grains fuel
healthier, happier kids. And healthy, happy kids fuel a healthy, happy future.

 


Meatless Lunch Tray
Native Foods
Café vegan restaurant uses this image courtesy of vegnews.com.

 

So that’s
where Meatless Mondays come in. Thirty districts and 57 schools nationwide have
now adopted the program, which helps cafeterias go all meatless or mostly
meatless one or more days a week. The movement is spearheaded by a Johns Hopkins-affiliated non-profit
which gives children and teachers the resources they need, including
health-focused educational materials and vegetarian menu ideas. It has garnered
positive response from coast to coast, and new reports say 2 out of 3 schools
offer some vegetarian option on a regular basis. When you compare a vegetarian
lunch tray to a meat-heavy lunch tray, it makes a lot of sense.

 

 

Rank

Worst School LunchItems

Disturbing Nutritional Facts

Worst

Beef and Cheese Nachos

24 grams of fat and almost 1,500 milligrams of sodium

Second Worst

Meatloaf and Potatoes

472 calories and 78 milligrams of cholesterol

Third Worst

Cheeseburgers

More saturated fat than a child should consume in an entire meal

Fourth Worst

Cheese Sandwiches, including toasted cheese and cheese
quesadilla

More than 7 grams of saturated fat and almost 1,000 milligrams
of sodium

Fifth Worst

Pepperoni Pizza

More than 6 grams of saturated fat; pepperoni is a processed
meat that increases cancer risk

 

Rank

Healthiest School Lunch Items

Healthiest

Vegetarian Chili: 7 grams of fiber, almost no saturated fat

Second Healthiest

Veggie Burger: 262 calories, 15.9 grams of protein

Third

Healthiest

Beans and Rice: high protein

Fourth

Healthiest

Hummus with Pita: 10.4 grams of fat, 2.6 grams of saturated fat

Fifth

Healthiest

Whole Grain Pasta with Marinara or Primavera Sauce:5 grams of
protein, lots of fiber

 Native Foods Café uses these images courtesy of the
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

                 

As
you see, vegetarian meals are the way to go. And, as many schools are
discovering, there are tons more options beyond these five. We’d like to turn
the spotlight on a few schools with cutting-edge school lunch programs that are
driving the nation’s progress toward healthier eating.

 

  1. Active Learning Elementary School (Queens, NY):
    This urban public school is the first in the nation to go all-vegetarian five
    days a week, which put it all over the news last spring. Students there report
    enjoying tofu stir-fries, falafel and brown rice dishes.

 

  1. Oakland Unified School District (Oakland, CA):
    This west coast district recently overhauled its school lunch program to
    incorporate fresh garden veggies and other farm-to-table products. Many of the
    schools have regularly maintained vegetable gardens that are used for
    nutritional education, and vegetarian options are available daily.

 

  1. Pinellas County School System (Pinellas, FL):
    The first district in 11 years to score a 100 on the National School Lunch
    Report Card, Pinellas is a role model for schools nationwide.  It boasts low-fat vegetarian options,
    like pasta fagioli and southwest salad, five days a week and features  a “fruit or vegetable of the month”
    (recently included avocado, pomegranate, purple sweet potato).

 

If you don’t
live in one of these districts, don’t be afraid to find out what your child is
eating outside of your home—you may be surprised by what you find. If you’d
like to see more plant-based options on your child’s school lunch line, write a
letter to the nutritional director or to talk to the Meatless Mondays campaign
about how to make it happen. And in the meantime, if you need inspiration for
plant-based meals for your own child, check out these
cool vegan lunchbox ideas

 


VeganBagelLunch
Native Foods
Café vegan restaurant uses this image courtesy of cheekykitchen.com.

 

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