New York City’s First Vegetarian Elementary School is Flourishing!

Heather Suhr
New York City’s First Vegetarian Elementary School is Flourishing!
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The United States is starting to recognize the importance of eating healthier at home, at school, and at work. With obesity rates rising at an alarming rate, the public is taking a proactive approach to reverse this circumstance.

A few New York City schools decided to make a change for the better. It all began in 2013 when the first public school, PS 244, in Queens, New York adopted a 100% vegetarian diet and saw a dramatic transformation in students’ health and performance. Another school in lower Manhattan followed in their footsteps.  What was the outcome of their drastic food change?

All it took was one principal and one 3rd grader to have a tremendous impact.

Co-founder of PS 244 and principal, Robert Groff, had both grandfathers die of heart attacks. Alarmed by the nature of their deaths, he began to evaluate the health and wellness of his school children, and sought to find out if diet affects student performance. After a few eliminations and changes, the school eventually went completely vegetarian. Interestingly, chocolate milk was the first to come off the school’s menu because of a 3rd grader’s request.  After the 3rd grader learned about nutrition labels, he wanted chocolate milk off the menu! (1)

In a short time, the New York City Department of Education established a program called the SchoolFund, which serves about 850,000 meals to students on a daily basis with 700,000 of them being provided at no cost to the student or parents. Their focus is to improve nutrition and education in school meals. (2)

A non-profit organization called the New York City Coalition for Healthy School Food teaches the value of plant-based foods and nutrition education to the whole school community. (3) They entered a partnership with PS 244. It became apparent that meat-free meals were the way to go. “We had no focus on vegetarianism specifically,” says Groff. “If we were presented with a free-range, organic chicken, that’s something we would talk about.” (1)

Setting an example for most schools around the country

Some may presume that PS 244 made an extreme move that would be too radical for other schools to follow, however, it did motivate many other schools to include more plant-based food into the school menus. Part of the reason is the growing recognition that there are more benefits to eating less meat. (1)

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee explains “a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.” (4)

Another reason could stem from Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity Let’s Move! campaign and the USDA establishing rules for more fruit and vegetable intake, decreasing the amount of sugar in foods, and portion size. (1,5)

How far can it go?

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, says that schools nationally are having trouble with the new USDA guidelines. Kids are fussy with the healthier food choices, producing food waste problems. In addition, children who are a part of the lunch program are opting out and bringing their own unhealthy meals from home. (1)

Yet PS 244 is flourishing and according to Groff, nearly 80 percent of the school children eat the vegetarian school lunch. Children that bring lunch from home are allowed to bring meat, but processed foods such as sodas, chips, and candies are not allowed. (1)

The question is… How far do you think we can go to change the eating habits in children around the globe?

Sources for this article include:
(1) www.fastcoexist.com
(2) www.schoolfoodnyc.org
(3) www.healthyschoolfood.org
(4) www.health.gov
(5) www.letsmove.gov

Image source: flic.kr

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