To parents of picky eaters who have had to resign themselves to the notion that chicken nuggets constitute a healthy meal, this is going to come as a shock: An elementary school in New York City has become the first in the nation to go all vegetarian.
Yes, think “whole-grain sunrise carrot bread” for breakfast or “‘Superhero’ spinach wrap with cucumber salad” for lunch. There’s even the option of roasted organic tofu—tofu!—with cacciatore sauce, whole-grain pasta and roasted zucchini, according to the New York Daily News.
And before anyone jumps to conclusions, we’re not talking about an elementary school nestled in one of the city’s posh, buying-local-ramps-from-the-Greenmarket neighborhoods. This is P.S. 244 in Flushing, Queens—multiethnic and socioeconomically diverse.
The school has “swapped chicken, turkey and ham for black beans, tofu and falafel,” the Daily News reports, “and kids are digging in with delight.”
The story continues: “‘This is so good!’ squealed 9-year-old Marian Satti, devouring her black bean and cheddar quesadilla Tuesday at lunch. ‘I’m enjoying that it didn’t have a lot of salt in it.’”
The fact that there exists somewhere in this country a 9-year-old who is concerned about her sodium intake is heartening (if also oddly disturbing), yet sadly, the accompanying photos and video clip do not appear to capture the same sort of unbridled enthusiasm among the students. (Though their ambivalent expressions may also be attributed to being forced to share their lunch hour with NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and news cameras.)
In any case, kudos must go out to the staff at P.S. 244 and the folks at the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, who made the school a trailblazer in a country where Congress recently forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to count the tomato paste on pizza as a bona fide serving of vegetables.
Last fall, the rules governing the federal government’s subsidized school meals program were revised for the first time in nearly two decades. The new regs required schools that participate in the program (pretty much all public schools do) to substantially cut things like sodium and fat while upping the quotient of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For the first time, the rules also put into place minimum and maximum calorie counts for meals, based on students’ ages.
By October, The New York Times ran a story depicting a nationwide backlash, with kids staging boycotts and taking to social media to proclaim “We Are Hungry.” One of the funniest quotes from these supposedly starving kids came from Malik Barrows, a senior at a high school in Brooklyn: “Before, there was no taste and no flavor. Now there’s no taste, no flavor and it’s healthy, which makes it taste even worse.”
(How can something with “no taste” be made to “taste even worse”?)
But we’ve got to start somewhere, right? What with more than a third of school-age kids either overweight or obese in America. And P.S. 244 has taken a huge leap forward. Because having kids stage protests over the fact that they’re now denied a monster portion of cheese nachos at lunch somehow generates the same queasy feeling of national shame as yet another picture of a pregnant Kim Kardashian in the checkout line.
Related stories on TakePart:
Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.