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School Lunches Go Vegetarian
"We don't make a big deal about it," says Peggy Lawrence, the district's food-service director. "We sneak it in, and the kids go for it."
It's all part of an ongoing effort by school nutrition professionals to educate children about making good food choices, including an emphasis on introducing children to vegetarianism. A new nationwide survey by the
And it's not just the standard salad bar, grilled cheese, succotash, or tofu-based products that are getting all the action. Meatless offerings for students these days are moving toward dishes that would appeal to nonvegetarians because of taste alone, says the SNA, such as Mexican-themed vegetable burritos, vegetable-topped pizza, vegetable cacciatore, or lentil sauce with pasta. At Rockdale schools, menu choices include stir-fry over rice, pasta and rice dishes, and egg salad or pimento cheese sandwiches.
Although the largest gains in school nutrition programs' healthful options come from added vegetarian items, schools are making efforts to better serve the nutritional needs of their students across the smorgasbord. The report, which surveyed about 1,200 school nutrition directors, shows a nearly 12 percent increase in low-fat foods since 2007 (the last time the survey was conducted). Items baked from scratch are also up, with schools using fresh fruits for low-calorie treats like peach cobbler or blueberry muffins, or black-bean brownie recipes, says the SNA.
The group, which represents more than 55,000 school food staff members, claims that more students are thinking about vegetarianism as it gains visibility in popular culture and that options for vegetarian meals are becoming more appealing and more available to the school food market.
But the economy is still very much part of the picture. More than 77 percent of food-service directors surveyed said state funding and the costs of food are the most pressing issues facing cafeteria programs as they head back to school this fall. Nearly 60 percent of districts have raised their school lunch prices this year to keep up with the cost of preparation, whereas two years ago only a third of districts had to increase their prices. And as more families struggle through the sluggish economy, more students are participating in the federal free and reduced-price meals program.
About 18.5 million students--or 60 percent of all K-12 students nationwide--receive either free or reduced-price lunches through the program, which administers federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches through the
The crux of the matter is that
At Rockdale schools, 57 percent of students received the free and reduced-price meals for the 2008-2009 year. The prior year, only 51 percent were eligible. Lawrence, who says the district is struggling with increased operational costs, health insurance, and benefits for employees, calls the 6 percent increase "huge."
"The kinds of things that go along with low socioeconomic status, we are feeling those effects here," she says. "We need to keep up with the pace of inflation and the rising cost of doing business."
© U.S. News & World Report
School Lunches Go Vegetarian