Active Learning Elementary School in Queens 100% Vegetarian

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The Active Learning Elementary School in Queens, New York, is taking a holistic approach to education.  Their cafeteria has gone 100% vegetarian, 5 days a week.

“We decided on a vision where health and nutrition would be a part of educating the whole child,” school principal Bob Groff said.

Active Learning’s students range from pre-kindergarten through third grade.  Instead of the children eating chicken fingers or pizza in the cafeteria, they have choices such as black bean quesadillas, rice and kidney beans, or tofu and Chinese noodles.  And they like it.

Principal Groff noticed about three years ago that several of the 400 children were bringing paper bag lunches with vegetarian food, instead of consuming  the offerings in the school cafeteria.  The school is composed of approximately 85% Asian Americans, and 10% Hispanic, and are more accustomed to eating vegetables.

Groff began the new program by going meatless three days a week, all the while testing different foods on a small group of children.

USDA requirements include a certain percentage of protein in student lunches.  Working closely with the board of education, and USDA guidelines, the school found a balanced diet that met all requirements, but was still able to eliminate meat.  They were able to become 100% vegetarian in January.

“We’ve been working with tofu for a few months,” Groff said. At first, the tofu was served as a seasonless block; now, smaller pieces of barbeque-flavored, oven roasted tofu are served with noodles. That, Groff said, “changes how the kids perceive it.”

Other options might include roasted chickpeas, vegetarian chili and brown rice, or falafel, the city Department of Education said in a statement.

Students appear to be enthusiastic about their healthy meals.

“When you’re healthy, you can do better on tests and you can fight more diseases,” student Nick Lin told CNN affiliate NY1.

Parents are thrilled about the changes.  When Groff attended a recent PTA meeting, he was welcomed with a standing ovation.  He told parents that if they preferred to prepare their own lunches for their children, it was completely acceptable.

But “the vegetarian menu fits right in with our mission, and we are thrilled that our students in pre-kindergarten all the way up to grade three understand the importance of healthy and nutritious meals,” Groff said in a statement.

Groff carefully studied the menu and its ingredients to ensure that there was no additional cost to the school.  He then hired one of the parents as the school “chef”.  One original dish, called “Malini’s Curry Chickpeas”, was served throughout the school district on ‘earth day’.

Thanks to Brittany Brady of CNN Health for originating this story.

James Turnage

Columnist-The Guardian Express

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