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September 5, 2001
Vegetarian Students Find School Lunches
Leave Them Asking: Where's the Beef Not?
WASHINGTON -- What does a kid have to do to get a decent veggie burger?
Lots, if it's lunch time at school.
Heather Reyes, 9, a fourth-grader in Yuma, Ariz., said she became a
vegetarian at age 4, after seeing "Babe," in which the hero's mother is
packed off to the slaughterhouse.
These days, Heather brings lunch to school. When she buys, she picks the
meat out of cafeteria hoagies, wishing she could get one of those meatless
Boca Burgers or even a slice of meatless pizza.
"The problem is, sometimes if there's pepperoni pizza, I have to pick
through and mutilate it," she said.
Whether they've been touched by "Babe" the talking pig or grossed
mad-cow disease, a growing number of children are rejecting meat, school
food-service providers say. And that's challenging schools to deliver more
vegetarian fare alongside the traditional lunches of sloppy joes, hot dogs
and chicken fingers.
Most parents of vegetarians say school cafeterias, which have long relied on
inexpensive, tried-and-true menus, do a poor job feeding their children.
Recent surveys show that about 2% of children under age 18 consider
themselves vegetarians, about the same percentage as adults. With nearly 50
million children attending public schools, that means approximately 1
million children who don't eat meet line up for school lunches each day.
Reed Mangels, a registered dietitian in Amherst, Mass., said as many as
one-third of the first- and fourth-graders in her school's classrooms said
they were vegetarians recently.
She and others say traumatic scenes in the movies "Babe" and "Chicken
have converted many young children to vegetarianism. Meanwhile, older
children are often emulating celebrities who go meatless, she said. "They
say, 'That's cool. I think I'll try it,'" Ms. Mangels added.
Schools in many areas have responded by adding salad bars as well as more
fruits, vegetables and meatless entrees, according to Marcia Smith,
president of the American School Food Service Association. "We're definitely
seeing an increase in vegetarian menus," said Ms. Smith, who runs the food
service program for Polk County, Fla., public schools.
Over the past five years, most schools have begun serving a vegetarian item
every day, she said. Schools must also accommodate children who don't eat
meat for religious reasons.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the national school lunch
program, has been experimenting with veggie items. But vegetarian advocates,
many of whom are parents of young vegetarians, say most schools don't
consider serving non-meat entrees unless guided -- or pestered -- by
Schools that do so often offer only cholesterol-laden items such as grilled
cheese, macaroni and cheese, deep-fried cheese sticks or pizza, parents say.
"If you talk to anybody out there in the real world, in vegetarian families,
the kids are having trouble finding something to eat," said Suzanne Havala,
a Chapel Hill, N.C., nutritionist and author of "Vegetarian Cooking for
In recent years, the federal government has made it easier for schools to
offer meatless options such as soy burgers or other meat replacements,
allowing schools to calculate meal ingredients by nutrients. But most prefer
to stick to a more traditional system that builds menus by measuring
servings of meat, vegetables, fruits and milk.
That system doesn't allow meat substitutions such as tofu, Ms. Havala said.
"The reality is that most schools still find it easier and more convenient
to serve lots of meat," she said.
Most nutritionists say young children need at least some meat in their
diets, saying it is difficult for parents to provide nutritious, lowfat
vegetarian meals. Venerated child care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock, who became
a vegetarian late in life, surprised colleagues in 1998 when he recommended,
shortly before his death, that children be raised as "vegans," rejecting
even milk and eggs.
Rodney Taylor, director of food and nutrition services for the Santa
Monica-Malibu, Calif., Unified School District, has featured a "farmer's
market salad bar" and vegetarian pasta dishes for years. He's experimenting
with other vegetarian entrees, but said many school districts simply can't
afford them. "Invariably they're great items, but they're out of our price
range," he said.
Mr. Taylor said a standard veggie burger on a bun costs 81 cents -- 49 cents
more than a hamburger. That's a lot when a school budgets for $1 per
He predicted, nonetheless, that schools will find a way to serve more
vegetarian fare. "As kids become more aware of the need to eat healthier and
the demand is greater, you'll see healthier items," he said. "But pizza and
hot dogs will always be there, long after you and I leave this earth."
Copyright © 2001 Associated Press