School Lunches Go Vegetarian

More meatless options are on menus, but rising prices are hitting districts hard, a new survey says.

By SHARE

At Rockdale County Public Schools just outside Atlanta, you won't find a whole lot of kids satisfying their midday hunger with potato chips, hamburgers, or other high-calorie foods in the cafeteria. Instead, they enjoy pizza with whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese, turkey corn dogs with whole-grain batter, or pimento cheese salads. And nothing is fried. The food-service staff for the 15,000-student school district does most of the baking from scratch, incorporating whole-wheat flour into the rolls, corn dogs, and hamburger buns.

"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 School Nutrition Association says almost 2 out of 3 U.S. schools now offer vegetarian fare for lunch on a regular basis. That's a 40 percent increase since 2003, the first year veggie meals were tallied by the nonprofit group.

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 Department of Agriculture based on household size and family income level. Participation in the program has gone up across every grade level since 2005.

The crux of the matter is that Congress subsidizes $2.68 for each "free" school meal served under the National School Lunch Program, but the meals cost districts an average of $2.92 to produce. The SNA and other interest groups are advocating for school food-service programs to receive the additional $0.24 for each reimbursable meal served. They say the increase would help programs keep pace with rising costs to provide students with healthful, nutritious meals.

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."