Would you like the tofu roasted in sesame sauce, the felafel and cucumber salad, or the braised black beans and plantains? These are some of the exotic choices at the first school in the US to take meat off the menu.
Public School 244Q, in Queens, New York City, has introduced exclusively vegetarian lunches as part of a city-wide mission to improve public health. And the school’s 400 pupils , aged four to nine, can’t get enough.
“This is so good!” Marian Satti, nine, told the New York Daily News while devouring a black-bean and Cheddar cheese quesadilla. “I’m enjoying that it didn’t have a lot of salt in it.”
When Jamie Oliver took his healthy-eating campaign to a school in Doncaster, one mother smuggled in junk food for her grease-starved children. In Queens, parents are more likely to test new dishes at PS244Q’s “family dinner” nights.
Bob Groff, the school’s principal, says support from everyone, including its partner, the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, is already producing results. “Our internal studies show a clear reduction in the percentage of fat in body weight,” he tells The Independent. “And kids bring this home – they ask Mum if they can switch to brown rice or request chickpeas for dinner.”
The school, which permits pupils to bring meat in packed lunches (but not fizzy drinks or many snacks), makes meals within public budgets and child-nutrition guidelines. Pupils also attend food and health classes three times a week.
New York plans to expand the burger-free regime, and Groff has received calls from intrigued principals across the country. But, the Doncaster mother notwithstanding, could a chickpea revolution reach Britain?
There are already vegetarian schools here, it turns out, though they are as rare as steak tartare. The Krishna Avanti Primary School in west London became the first vegetarian state school when it opened in 2010. The Hindu faith school opened another meat-free branch in Leicester the following year.
A handful of non-faith vegetarian schools includes Lewes New School, an independent in East Sussex. It offers vegetarian lunches and requires packed lunches to be meat-free. “Parents don’t mind at all,” says Catherine Speak, the school secretary.
Where meat is served, options for vegetarians can be poor. Last year, Harley McIntosh, an A-level student from Bury, launched a Jamie-style petition to urge the Government to improve them after growing up on a diet of chips and cheese sandwiches.
Neither food would make the menu at St Christopher School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. It has been vegetarian since 1915, according to the desire of its founders to “make sure members of any faith could sit and eat together”. Emma-Kate Henry, its deputy head, adds: “It also fits well with healthy eating, and pupils like it.” It’s not clear whether fans include steak-necking restaurant reviewers AA Gill and the late Michael Winner, who both attended the independent school.
Henry, who isn’t vegetarian and has worked in state schools, says that beyond the case for health or ethics, meat-free meals make economic sense. “Budgets mean the meat you’re going to be offering won’t be the best. If you take that out, you have far more scope.”