When I was in school, lessons were done with a No. 2 pencil and a composition notebook. The "three R's" were reading, writing and 'rithmetic, and mystery meat was the main option in the school cafeteria. How things have changed! Now, many kids are as likely to do their homework on a PC as they are with paper and pencil. The "three R's" are recycling, reusing and reducing, and many schools are serving veggie burgers, faux chicken sandwiches and other meatless meals. Perhaps one day, teachers will even be giving apples to the students.
While Salisbury steak and chicken nuggets-foods that cause kids' cholesterol levels to skyrocket-are still staples in most cafeterias, many lunch menus have gotten a healthy makeover. All 110 Gwinnett County public schools in Atlanta, for example, offer tofu-based corn dogs, fresh fruit, soy milk and other vegetarian options. More than half a million meat-free meals have been served in Gwinnett County schools since last fall. Grady High School, also in Atlanta, even has a separate lunch line for students who want vegetarian foods, such as pasta lo mien and soy-based sloppy Joes.
Many schools are scrambling to meet the growing demand for vegetarian fare. Three schools in Broward County, Florida, began serving Gardenburgers, vegan chili and other healthful choices after a vegetarian student circulated a petition among her classmates. Officials at James Logan High School in Union City, California, incorporated vegan foods into the regular lunch menu when they saw how many kids frequented a student-run vegetarian "Smart Cart."
The Los Angeles Unified School District-the second-largest school district in the nation-serves various vegan foods, and Wayland Public Schools in Framingham, Massachusetts, offer homemade hummus, salads and other meatless options. Preschoolers at BellaVita School in Longmont, Colorado, even help grow the fruits and vegetables they eat in a community garden.
I can't wait for this trend to spread to every school in the nation. All parents want their kids to have healthy choices and it can be frustrating if you live in a school district that flunks lunch. My girls "brown bag" it, with inventive meals from the Vegan Lunch Box blog, so I know they're getting wholesome food. But all kids, no matter where they live, should be able to order nutritious vegetarian meals right at school.
Plant-based foods are rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals-all the nutrients kids need to grow up healthy. A steady diet of meat and dairy products, on the other hand, contributes to the soaring rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other ailments that are afflicting our children. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines calling for cholesterol screening of children as young as 2-and cholesterol drugs for kids as young as 8-because so many youngsters today are overweight.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has urged school lunch programs to offer fewer animal fats for yet another reason: so that children won't be exposed to so many dioxins-cancer-causing toxins found in meat and milk. By serving vegetarian meals instead of animal products, schools can help set children up for a lifetime of good health.
As the late Dr. Benjamin Spock said, "Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer."
Other leading pediatricians endorse vegan diets for children, as does the American Dietetic Association. It will be a gold-star day when parents can count on schools to promote nutritious vegetarian meals too. After all, schools should help foster our children's health, not harm it.
Tim Enstice is the manager of the Planned Giving Department for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.GoVeg.com.