The Time is Right for Getting Veggie Meals Into Schools… And here’s how YOU can do it!
by Susan Wieland
If you’re like me, you worry when you pack your children off to school, “What are they going to eat for lunch?” Despite the fact that 1/3 of teenagers think being vegetarian is cool; over 30 million Americans have explored a vegetarian eating pattern; and approximately 27% of meal requests in restaurants are vegetarian; it’s difficult to find anything suitable for vegetarians and vegans in school cafeterias.
If you think there’s no hope, think again!
When Barbara Gates, a parent of two beautiful children in Southern California, had difficulty convincing her school food service director to offer more vegetarian fare; she took her complaint to the State Assembly. The result was a state resolution requesting every public school to provide vegetarian options daily. Introduced by Assemblyman Joe Nation, her proposal had the full backing of the California Association of Student Councils, California Federation of Teachers, the California School Boards Association, and the California State Parent Teacher Association.
When students of the Los Angeles Unified school district realized, despite the resolution, change may not come easily, they took their complaint to the streets. Marching through downtown LA with signs and placards, the story caught the attention of CNN. Following the presentation, school board member, Marlene Canter, committed to writing the LAUSD Healthy Food Resolution. If the 2nd largest district in the nation passes this, others will surely follow!
A similar proposal had already passed the Hawaii legislature, where increasing numbers of schools are adopting the request. Many other states are reviewing their current school lunch programs, especially in relation to junk and fast food policies!
The time is ripe for change. Under fire from the medical community, parents, and activists, for the huge increases in obesity amongst our children, schools are rapidly becoming aware that change is upon them. That’s why it’s so crucial that each of us pick up our phones and call our local school district to request vegetarian and plant-based options, now. That phone call or better yet, letter (copied to the PTA president, Food Service Director, Principle, Superintendent, Student Council President and select teachers) will begin the process of change.
Why Change the School Lunch Program?
Lifelong eating patterns are established in childhood. Thus, getting vegetarian meals into schools will do more than satisfy the very important goal of providing a warm vegan or vegetarian lunch to your children and their friends. Including veggie alternatives at lunchtime affirms that vegetarian meals are healthy, bona fide and desirable; an understanding that will affect student’s dietary choices throughout their lifetime.
This means future adults will indeed eat more plant-based meals and encourage their children to do the same; a simple dietary change that provides multiple benefits. A minimal10% reduction in the amount of meat consumed across America will save the lives of approximately 900,000,000 animals per year, free enough grain to feed 60 million people, and greatly reduce environmental pollution.
Additionally, there are the health benefits. Did you know that:
On a given day, less than 15% of children eat the minimum recommended servings of fruit; 35% eat none; only 17% of children consume the minimum daily recommended servings of vegetables and 20% eat none?
One-fourth of children ages 5-10, have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or other early warning signs for heart disease? That number rises to nearly 61% among overweight children of the same age. 27% of overweight children have two or more risk factors!
90% of children consume amounts of fat above the recommended level?
The prevalence of obesity among young people ages 6-17 years in the United States has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and that trend is continuing. Over 4.7 million, or 11% of youth ages 6-17 years are seriously overweight!
While plant-based diets provide all necessary proteins, contain essential vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, have fiber, are low in fat, and contain no cholesterol; meat and dairy products are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, contain excess protein, are laden with antibiotics, hormones, and pathogens, contain no fiber and lack most necessary vitamins and minerals. While plant-based foods are ‘life-giving’ and protect the body from disease; diets high in animal fat and protein increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, several forms of cancer, and other chronic diseases that cripple and kill nearly 1.4 million Americans annually. Obesity, hypertension, and atherosclerosis, and key precursors to these diseases, begin during childhood years.
Here’s What You Can Do!
By becoming informed and organizing a network of support, you can greatly impact decisions and effect change in schools. Here are some basic steps you will want to take when organizing a school lunch campaign:
Check menus, visit the school cafeteria and talk to your kids. Familiarize yourself with school lunch policies. Contact CHOICE(Consumers for Healthy Options in Children’s Education) to find out who’s already active locally, statewide and nationally. You will want to coordinate efforts whenever feasible.
Know Your Audiences
There are several audiences with stakes in the school lunch program: parents, teachers, food service, students, and administrators. The more you research, understand and validate their perspectives, the easier it will be to glean their support.
Build A Convincing Argument
Acquire available materials. Contemplate the benefits and obstacles most relevant to your school district and consider possible creative solutions.
Build a Network of Support (Most important!)
The larger your support network, the more credible your request, and the more difficult it will be for individuals within the school system to discredit your efforts.
Once you have built a solid foundation, you will want to take action. Choose those action steps that will be most beneficial in your local environment. Consider how to:
Gain support from the PTA(s).
Join the PTA!
(Important) Attend meetings and network. Schedule a PTA presentation. Your aim is to: 1) Inform parents and teachers, 2) Seek the PTA’s help and endorsement in forming a school nutrition committee, 3) Gain permission to send home informational notices and announcements, and 4) Support networking efforts with school officials and state liaisons.
Glean Community Support
Hold community meetings.
Advertise through local media, free calendar and PSA radio announcements, as well as flyers and information sheets at vegetarian community centers (health food stores, co-ops, restaurants, etc.).
Solicit help from community vegetarian societies
Identify medical practitioners who support a vegetarian diet, and seek help from community leaders.
Your aim will be to submit a formal request to the State Department of Education, your local school board, and/or school principle (depending on how your local food service program is set up.) Again, the more support you glean, the more credible your request.
Organize a Letter Writing Campaign
Send letters / requests to school officials.
Encourage other parents to do the same.
Write a “Letter to the Editor”
Meet with the student council.
Form a student action committee.
Provide after-school activities.
Coordinate with teachers
Provide plant-based lesson plans and website activities.
Make a presentation or organize a guest speaker.
Organize a field trip to a farm (for picking), a grocery store (for selecting and preparing), a health food store (for sampling new foods), etc. Or help classes plant a garden.
Coordinate between teachers and food service for ‘healthy meal’ days in the cafeteria, or healthy ethnic foods on world holidays.
Gain their support and endorsement for your efforts.
Work with Food Service
Sit down and talk with your local Food Service Director / Coordinator.
Your approach should be inquisitive and supportive. Assume that they want to serve healthy, vegetarian meals, and ask what is needed and what you can do to help make this happen. Show you are serious and dedicated. Make suggestions of things you can do to help.
Ask for gradual change.
Emphasize quality over quantity. When introducing new foods, it’s important to make the first new selection(s) a success. Carefully select items that you are confident will succeed. Your goal is one vegetarian alternative entree and 2 nicely cooked side vegetables daily.
Provide Marketing Materials.
When asked what is needed to introduce healthier and vegetarian options in schools, representatives from the National Office of AFSFA (American Food Service Association) said, “Marketing materials”. Presentation is almost everything in food selection. To gain the interest of students for new foods, you would do well to provide a series of marketing materials and stir up some interest. Contact CHOICE for posters, samples menus, recipe cards, placemats, ideas and more.
Ask Others to Also Request Vegetarian Meals.
Food Service personnel should not think you are the only person interested in healthy meals. The more parents, teachers, administrators and, perhaps most importantly, students who contact them and request vegetarian alternatives, the better.
Develop a trusting relationship and work closely with School Food Service.
Every school is different in their set up. And every school will differ in their receptivity to your efforts. When you have a receptive food service department, don’t underestimate the value of that relationship. Take the time to cultivate an on-going exchange by bringing samples, asking how things are going, and providing interesting materials to food service. If you make someone feel special and take a personal interest, you stand a much better chance of getting your messages across.
Meet with School Administrators
Set up an appointment for you, and one or two community leaders (a doctor, PTA president, commissioner or other influential individual) to meet with the school principle and request veggie meals. Bring support materials: data, brochures, articles, and the “Healthy Cafeteria” checklist put out by Team Nutrition, and tasting samples.
Make a Presentation at a School Board Meeting
Students and parents should attend in force.
Provide Taste-testing Opportunities:
In the cafeteria. Serve simple foods that can easily be duplicated by food service (rather than more expensive foods like fake meats). You may choose to serve several at one sitting, or go periodically, say once a month, with different selections. Ask the student’s to rate the selections so you can let food service know what are their favorites.
Samples for food service. People generally cook what they like to eat. One way to get food service to try new dishes is to bring samples to food service officials. When you find something they really like, bring it more often (once a month or so) until they agree to prepare it for the children.
Offer to bring taste-testing samples as part of a nutrition education lesson or party.
Provide veggie treats at your PTA presentation.
Host a taste-testing fest. Coordinate with several schools to hold a Healthy Meals for Healthy Kids festival. Contact manufacturers and distributors to bring or send samples. And coordinate with parents and local organizations to present a variety of tasty edibles. Include fun, healthy eating awareness activities for the children and short presentations by community leaders.
Coordinate a Farm-to-Cafeteria Produce Program
There is often excess produce on farms. The trick is to access it. Increasing numbers of schools across the country are benefiting from coordinated efforts to get this excess produce into their school lunch program. Some is being purchased and distributed through the Department of Defense. Other schools are simply contacting nearby farmers. In many cases, schools are receiving organic, fresh produce for next to nothing, because someone has taken the time to make the proper connections and coordinate such an effort. Consider what a boon this would be at your school and make some calls.
If you’re interested to organize an effort in your local area, contact CHOICE. CHOICE will provide full back up and support materials for your efforts. CHOICE is currently also accepting applications for small grants to assist you financially in your school lunch efforts.
Other organizations that can provide support materials include:
Vegetarian Resource Group