Innovative School Lunch Programs Gaining Success
By Michele Simon
Originally published in Vegetarian Journal, January/February 1999.

In many schools across the nation, school lunch menus read like a fast-food joint. Faced with limited budgets and government red tape, schools often resort to serving unhealthy items such as pizza, burgers, and fries. But across the nation, pockets of concerned nutritionists, chefs, food educators and parents are taking back their schools' lunch programs that have failed to provide healthy meals children are willing to eat. And schools are opening their doors to educators stressing plant-based options. So far, kids are responding by not only by eating vegetarian foods, but actually getting excited about it.

Children in four of the poorest elementary schools in Miami are part of a new food and nutrition program integrating art, science, geography and even physical education. Education intern Valerie Hobbs, of Florida International University (FIU), likes the curriculum's hands-on nature because she says, "that's how children learn." The lesson plan started out emphasizing safety, incorporating performance art to convey food handling techniques. Next, children created works of art using brightly colored foods such as carrots, kidney beans, purple cabbage and broccoli. "Today the children ran a relay-race putting foods in the right nutrition category in a huge food guide pyramid. It's a fun project and the kids are really enjoying it" Hobbs said. The curriculum also emphasizes cultural connections, describing the ethnic origins of various foods.

Antonia Demas, PhD, nutritionist and author of the curriculum, trained 40 FIU education majors to carry on the project. Demas, director of the Trumansburg, NY-based Food Studies Institute and school lunch consultant for over 20 years, found in her doctoral research that children could be taught to eat plant-based foods. Professor Craig Williams, supervisor of FIU's education interns, was drawn to Demas' curriculum out of concern that inner-city children were not getting proper nutrition. And, the program is mutually beneficial because he says, "it's a way to get college students involved in the community while practicing to become teachers themselves."

On the other side of the country, another innovative program focuses more on the environment. The Peaceable Plate Lunch Program is underway at Fairmeadow Elementary in Palo Alto, California. Last year, 60 third graders learned about the ecological and nutritional aspects of food choices. The program improved the school's food waste management system by establishing a compost pile. At the same time, two new plant-based menu items were added in the cafeteria - a veggie burger and potato with veggie chili and cheese - both meeting government nutrition guidelines for school lunches. "The success of our first year was greater then expected," says program co-director Laura Stec, "because it addressed students' concerns - the environment and animals."

The program is continuing this year with help from the Chefs' Collaborative 2000, a group of 500 top-flight chefs sponsoring the "Adopt-a-School" program around the country - an educational program for elementary schools based on sustainable cuisine and agriculture.

Demas stresses that there must be a comprehensive approach to healthier school lunches, with stepped-up education efforts and attitude changes. But, she says, the school lunch program can't be seen in isolation. "You can't just put healthy foods out on the line and expect children to eat them. It has to be part of the child's education." Demas' approach of combining education with introducing healthier foods has proven successful in varied communities, including New York City, Santa Fe and Hawaii, in private and public schools alike.

In Hawaii, Demas teamed up with vegetarian nutritionist and chef Jennifer Raymond to educate children at Haiku Elementary School on Maui in a project funded by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. As a result of their efforts, the school successfully introduced a salad bar consisting of fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as a taro veggie burger, thereby taking advantage of a native Hawaiian crop.

Demas is convinced of the importance of sustaining efforts to improve the quality of school lunches. "This work effects all of our lives because children are our future and they deserve to have a quality education. We all benefit when that happens."