Vegan Foods

Vegan lunches restart at Portland elementary schools, making district a national leader

With Veganuary thriving (and hundreds of thousands of participants around the world eating plants to reduce climate emissions), Portland is leading the way as a leader in serving hot vegan meals to college students.

In September, Portland, Maine’s largest school district, restarted its vegan hot lunch program for elementary schools. It started in the 2019-2020 academic year but was suspended the following year due to distance learning during the pandemic. He resumed this fall. Every day, students at the city’s 10 elementary schools can choose between a hot vegan meal, a traditional hot meal, or a vegan sandwich with sunflower seed butter and jelly.

Serving plant-based dishes makes Portland “a leader in this space for K-12 foodservice,” said Karla Dumas, registered dietitian and director of the Humane’s foodservice innovation division. Society of the United States.

The Humane Society’s Forward Food program offers free recipes, chef training, and other support to school districts interested in adding plant-based, vegan meals to their menus. The organization also has an environmental specialist available to calculate how much districts are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by replacing certain animal meats and dairy products with plant-based foods. Dumas estimates that 10% of school districts in the United States offer vegan meals every day, but many of them are cold dishes (such as sunflower butter sandwiches).

Most major school districts that serve vegan hot meals, such as Los Angeles, offer them at the high school level. In Portland, the pattern is reversed, with daily hot vegan choices in elementary schools, no hot vegan choices in middle schools, and a veggie burger as the only hot vegan option in high schools. Jane McLucas, Portland’s director of food services, plans to bring hot vegan meals to colleges, but said pandemic-related challenges have delayed the rollout.

Any elementary school student can order a vegan lunch, and it can have wide appeal. With an almost half non-white student population, many students in Portland might have dairy intolerances; the ability to digest lactose in adulthood is linked to northern European ancestry. Additionally, Portland students who are members of the Muslim, Jewish, Ethiopian Orthodox, or Seventh-day Adventist communities may avoid animal meat and dairy products for religious reasons.

As the parent of a vegan elementary school student, adding daily hot vegan meals has been transformative for my family, saving us time, money and headaches. I haven’t packed a single lunch for my ninth grader this school year. Instead, when school started, I explained to her, “Every day the school offers a hot vegan lunch and a sun butter sandwich. Choose one. And he did.

Portland’s vegan hot lunches this month include Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers, taco boats, falafel with rice, chili with macaroni, orange tofu with rice, bean bowls and build-your-own hummus rice and pizzas. One day a month, the only hot lunch option is the popular vegetarian chili served with Maine baked potatoes and tortilla chips, so all students eat vegan. Most often, the traditional hot lunch includes beef or chicken, although a few days a month the entree is vegetarian, such as a cheese pizza or grilled cheese sandwich.

Vegan lunches are “a great product that we’re proud to serve,” McLucas said.

I asked my son, Alden, what he likes on the vegan hot lunch menu. “Baked potato with beans and fries is my favorite,” he said without hesitation, referring to the vegetarian chili. “My second favorite is the black bean burger. My third favorite is tofu and my fourth favorite is falafel. In fact, I love tofus as much as the black bean burger.

He would like to see more kung pao tofu and this vegetarian chili, and he would like to see less raw vegetables. “Today they had peas,” Alden told me. “Not cooked. Not salted. Just peas. Why would they put peas in there? I would like more strawberries or things the kids really like.

The pandemic has closed school salad bars, so fruits and vegetables are now pre-plated with each tray.

Portland Public Schools board member and parent Adam Burk says his son also eats vegan lunches every day. The Vegan Hot Lunch has allowed Burk’s son, my son, other vegan children, and college students who avoid meat or dairy for religious or health reasons to be included in the known rite of passage. under the name of school lunch. This move towards inclusion in the cafeteria has also expanded daily options for vegetarians.

The number of students requesting the vegan lunches varies widely from school to school, according to McLucas, with most vegan lunches served at Rowe Elementary and at least one elementary school serving none; McLucas declined to identify the school. At the East End Community School, where my son goes to school, students are given the traditional hot meal and have to request the vegan option.

Burk thinks more students are opting for vegan lunches at Rowe because students have a choice.

“The style of giving the kids the meat option and having the kids ask for the vegan option was what happened to Rowe in the beginning too,” he said. “We, and probably other families, inquired about this and a change was made soon after. How the choices are presented definitely makes a difference. My kid at Rowe says now he is offered both options every day, and it’s easy to choose the vegan option.

Sara Rubin, vice-principal at Lyseth Elementary and mother of two students at Rowe, is a big fan of hot vegan lunches. Based on her observations in the cafeteria, she agreed with Burk that requiring elementary students to request the vegan lunch prevents some students from taking it. She said the addition of masks and language barriers made it even more difficult for some young students to speak up. Rubin suspects that some vegan and vegetarian students still pack their own lunches due to fear that they actually get a hot lunch – in the first year of the program, vegan lunches often ran out – and general distrust at with regard to school food.

My family had first-hand experience of the communication and trust issues she raised. On a recent Tuesday, the menu listed falafel as a vegan choice, but my son said he was offered a vegan hot dog. He opted for the sunflower butter sandwich. “I never eat vegan hot dogs because they look exactly the same as meat hot dogs,” he said, adding that maybe “they didn’t hear me and gave me the meat hot dog”.

It’s a legitimate concern in a noisy cafeteria where everyone wears a mask. When I asked McLucas about vegan hot dogs, she confirmed that no such item was served, meaning the hot dog offered to my son was not vegan. McLucas attributed the confusion to a substitute on duty that day and the absence of the kitchen manager, evidence of the department’s staffing issues.

The reinstatement of vegan lunches comes as Portland schools face severe staffing shortages and federal funding for Universal Free Lunch has increased the total number of lunches the school serves.

Portland Food Service, which runs a central kitchen off Riverside Street and runs 16 school cafeterias, is understaffed everywhere. McLucas, instead of taking care of paperwork (including finding and filing free and reduced-price meal forms, which the federal government still requires despite universal free meal funding) spends his days serving as food in cafeterias. When I asked her how many more lunches the schools are serving this year than before, she said it was a lot but she didn’t have the numbers yet. It’s “one of those things on my to-do list,” she added. A list that grows day by day.

Despite the staff shortage, McLucas said his central kitchen team continues to refine the hot lunch vegan menus. “They experimented with meat substitutes to create seasoned vegan taco meat,” she said. “They make it homemade, season the tofu or the beans so they can mimic that taco-like filling more.”

Vegan lunches haven’t increased district costs, McLucas said, in part because vegan lunches rely on affordable ingredients such as beans and rice, and also the central kitchen makes as much as possible from scratch. .

“Dr. Praeger’s is a bit pricey, but we only serve it once a week,” McLucas said. “We buy the falafel in bulk.”

In addition to being short-staffed, McLucas and his team are struggling with supplies as the district, like everyone else, is plagued by supply chain shortages. It helps that his team buys a lot of Maine-grown produce in season, McLucas said, processes it, and freezes it for later use — homemade tomato sauce, for example.

This pleases Burk. He’d rather Portland schools not rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Program, which he says “makes the market for foods schools buy weigh heavily in favor of meat.” ” and “large-scale industrial agriculture”.

“How to move produce to support local small farms is perhaps the ultimate nut to crack when it comes to school food,” he said.

Until then, Portland Public Schools has become a leader in the movement to reduce government spending on industrial animal foods and their associated greenhouse gases, by adopting vegan menu items.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]
Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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