The republican-led House of Representatives voted this past summer to end the requirement that meat labels must state where the meat is from. As Bill Maher puts it, the new bill should be called the “Freedom From Information Act”.
We have a responsibility, to ourselves and society, to be as well informed as we possibly can in order to prevent companies from taking advantage of us. Within this vast corporate, money-driven world of America, the self-interests of companies outweigh the health and safety of its citizens, all in the name of profit. We allow them to put our very lives and health at risk with our ignorance, when we decide we’d rather not know the true facts because the taste of that hamburger, for example, in that moment, is more important. We are better than that. A single hamburger today, can contain meat from over a hundred cows. What else should we allow to be hidden from us?
At the very least, defend your right to know. Demand your freedom to access information about what you put in your mouth, even if the information isn’t easy to swallow. We cannot continue to be so easily content turning a blind eye, the consequences are too great. This new bill infringes on safety and the consumers’ most basic rights. As Bill Maher so eloquently put it, “regulations are supposed to protect people from corporations, not corporations from people.
It is easy to feel powerless by how much you can do and how much change will occur with our currant political landscape. However, you make yourself more powerful by staying informed and showing an example for others. People take notice when others start to. It’s a sales pitch the government and corporations are creating for the sake of profit. Don’t let them sell you bulls**t when it comes to purchasing your food. Stay aware and connected to what’s really going on and make informed decisions. Maintain your freedom to know.
Confession time: I cheated on my vegan diet the other day and had a little cheese in my salad. The aged cheese was a thoughtful gift from the travels of a friend and not something we bought, it should be noted haha. I felt as though I was a crazed animal with a newly found, hypersensitivity to my taste buds and palette. Oh the massive amount of guilt that consumed me. In the past, if a little cheese was on something I was eating I barely noticed, didn’t give much thought to before. But now, it’s a completely different story. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime treat in my mind. The thrill and happiness that I experienced from eating that cheese… I was disgusted with myself, how it could have this affect over me, leaving me feeling weak and powerless.
I was reminded of a story my mom had told me of one of her former students. The child in her class had parents that enforced very strict diets for their kids since they were born, forbidding any and all sugar. But once their children were old enough to enter school and have the freedom from their parents’ presence, they stuffed themselves sick with candy and sugary treats, going on a wild mission for it. The restrictions that were placed upon them made them hunger for it and crave the unhealthy food more than the average child, who was used to having treats fairly often. I worry about having a similar incident and the parallels that I feel to those kids and one day cracking, giving this up. Perhaps going cold turkey was not the best approach for me, too much all at once. Although “cold turkey” is not the best term of phrase when speaking about veganism, I have to admit.
My boyfriend nicely shook off my worries and advised that it’s best not to refer to my cheese transgression as cheating, perhaps to remove the “forbidden-ness” aspect out of the picture. Rather than dwelling on your cheating, you should accept your few weak moments and actions, forgive yourself, and move on. Allowing you to continue on your path and be successful and guilt free, without the all-hope-is-lost attitude that tends to spin you back to your old habits. It all sounds very similar to the diet tips for people trying to lose weight. No one guaranteed it would be easy. I must remind myself what I’m going through is normal and I am not alone in my feelings during this journey, as others before me have wrestled problems during their diet change. I also have the support and backing from my boyfriend, family, and other loved ones to help me along.
From the lessons I’ve gained from the matter, if you slip up, do not think that everything is ruined forever. You must have an optimistic and determined mentality. Just continue on no matter how many times you have to hit the “reset” button on your diet change and keep going in the direction of your goal. In fact, a lot of people go through a transition period on their path to becoming fully vegan, and it’s ok, as long as you remember the exact reason that led you to becoming vegan in the first place. That will help get you through the weak moments.
Because all of this is psychological, we must train ourselves, body AND mind, in order to undertake one of the hardest challenges we face on a regular basis with every choice we make; which is to delay our immediate joy/gratification, in exchange for a much greater benefit in the future. I’m forgiving my cheese offense and carrying on.
Want versus need. What really, truly drives our decisions? Do we listen to what our bodies actually require rather than answer our strong, current desires each time we sit down for a meal? Is it a balancing act of sorts? As I reach the third week mark of my vegan diet, my cravings have been on the forefront of my mind, consuming any other thoughts of nutrition and threatening to drown out all the reasons why I chose to follow a vegan diet in the first place.
My boyfriend noticed my struggling and poignantly reminded me of the true, little importance that taste-based food choices have in the long-term and towards your happiness. He simply asked me if I could remember what we had to eat for dinner three nights ago and my mind drew a complete blank and I couldn’t recall. Which was astonishing because I’ve never craved, discussed, blogged, and thought about food as much as I am now. In the moment, you think how you absolutely must indulge and order those fries, buy that candy in the grocery store, and have that frozen pizza in your fridge instead of preparing a salad. Taste is your main focus. Yet, as my boyfriend has found, nine times out of ten, if you ask anyone, they cannot tell you what they had to eat for dinner three nights ago. Some time after I remembered, when I really thought it out, but his point really resonated with me; how taste is completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
That discovery gave me pause and I hope will create a shift in my thinking. Having worked as a waitress for a number of years, I am far too used to the atmosphere of a restaurant where taste is absolutely everything, customers come to indulge and gluttony doesn’t exist. I hope that’s what’s happened to me. Trapped too long in the restaurant world, warping my way of thinking temporarily. How am I so wrapped up in the present, pursuing mere taste and my wants time and time again? Allowing this inner child/brat in my head, without any regard for health, win out. In those times of temptation when I give in, I tell myself it’s just a little treat and all in moderation, as long as I’m not having this every day… maybe there’s still some truth to that, but I’m so focused on taste.
Hopefully there’s an ideal middle ground where you can have both, taste and health. I’m happily discovering it really is possible and proven to be so with the nutritious and delicious vegan cooking my boyfriend creates every day and undoubtedly surprises my taste buds with as well. There have been some things, such as juicing, that I have had trouble mustering though, even with hearing all the health benefits. Which leaves me contemplating the ultimate dilemma; how do I rise above and overcome my obsession with taste? Perhaps I have a very unhealthy relationship to food. I wonder if everyone faces this same battle, with some of us having stronger self-discipline than others, silencing their urges.
I suppose it boils down to a mental game to be won then. A test of determination. And in that case I must fight, every day, until the battle is so familiar to me that I hardly notice it, until it’s not a struggle any longer. I must resist my cravings that have built up, cutting off their power to take hold and control me. I cannot allow my heightened attention to food influence my desires and goal to maintain a healthy vegan diet. I do not wish to be at the mercy of my cravings. My problem has been that I’m too focused on what I cannot eat, instead of concentrating on all the new food possibilities that’s opened up to me since becoming vegan. I must let it go, recognize what is truly driving these unwanted urges and remember that these cravings feel and seem more important than they actually are. What’s more important to me is leading a healthy, happy life and that can easily start with diet.
Taste is fleeting, too easy to give into, allows you effortlessly to think solely on pleasure, living in the present and not the future. Health is forever. Or in a case where you’re not thinking about health and nutrition, health isn’t forever at all. Health will be your doom and take your life sooner. Life and health are forever entwined. When you are in a hospital bed with death on the horizon, you won’t be applauding yourself for indulging all your life and you still won’t remember what you had three nights ago for dinner. Health and every food choice you make right now, add up, it is all your future stands on; it’s the entirety of your life. Taste, therefore, no matter how hard it is, must be secondary to health. Like the Rolling Stones’ song lyrics state,
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
We want what we can’t have. The saying that is usually reserved to describe the trials of love or yearning for objects and aspirations out of reach, but in this case, I’m referring to food of course. A familiar inner voice appears in your head convincing you to give into temptation as you fixate a longing gaze and a watering mouth on a certain food item you know you should refrain from, that you try desperately to stifle and silence. It seems like a cruel joke how the appeal and desire emerges ever more strongly, accompanied with a heightened sense of attention and awareness, when restraining one-self. Lately, fueled by frustration from struggling with non-vegan food cravings, the inner workings of self-control and the implications of having a lack of personal discipline have been heavy on my mind, striking my curiosity. It’s the ultimate test of willpower at play that all of us grapple with in various aspects of our lives on a daily basis.
What I learned is willpower has, in fact, recently been discovered to be more than a mere metaphor. Scientists describe willpower as being a form of energy in the brain, similar to a muscle. Willpower can be strengthened with practice and use, however, it also progressively gets fatigued and decreases with use throughout the day. Whether it’s resisting food, decision-making, or completing a dreaded task, exercising self-control in different areas of your life ends up drawing from and draining the same source of mental energy. The key is in conserving your willpower for matters of importance, since you only have a finite amount of it each day. Simply putting food you’re resisting near to you, in your sight, aides in depleting your willpower. Whereas putting it across the room from you or not having it in your presence at all, makes restraint far easier because you are not actively resisting the temptation. A study even concluded that workers in an office ate a significant more amount of candy when it was placed on a desk inside a clear, glass bowl versus a non-transparent bowl. Proving the out-of-sight-out-of-mind technique to be an effective strategy.
These findings came as no surprise to me, whose battle to follow a vegan diet while still in New Hampshire, came to be an impossible feat for me. Surrounded by non-vegan food not only at home and gatherings with friends, but also at the restaurant where I worked, I was constantly being challenged. Even after watching those horrid videos of farm animals being cruelly abused and slaughtered, I was hopelessly only able to uphold a vegan diet for a meager day or so, until I gave in and let all of my old habits and diet come rearing back in. Utterly discouraged, I concluded my goal to go vegan could not realistically be reached until my impending move to Hawaii. Where I’d be removed from my routines, the lure of my refrigerator, my mother’s cooking, the quantities of rich food available at the restaurant I worked for, and all the other surrounding influences and temptations that seemingly held me hostage. I’d be able to start from square one moving to Hawaii with the most extreme and ideal out-of-sight-out-of-mind set up available to me.
I then had about a four month long postponement period before Hawaii and a vegan lifestyle that awaited me. I must admit, for a large portion of those four months, I was gravitating towards meat and dairy with a lust and desire like it was my last day to live. The guilt and shame associated with consuming meat and dairy was palpable, but in my head, what consistently prevailed was an overwhelming feeling of limited time. The dominating argument that I won’t be able to have this food/drink item once I follow veganism, so I need to enjoy it while I still can. It’s a mindset difficult to describe, which strikes a certain feeling of scarcity, finality, and fear producing a powerful desire that makes you want to cling to your old diet even more tightly. For the duration of the postponement of my transition to veganism, before my move, I focused on the traditional aspects and familiarities of meat and dairy, which I had consumed all my life. The notion that it is “normal” to eat these things, instead of reminding myself of the animal it originated from and pushing the new information and the unpleasant things I had watched to the back of my mind. Before my move, I only managed to cut down on my meat consumption slightly, while my dairy intake, I believe, increased to make up for my self-imposed meat limitations. I was feeling weak and defeated for my embarrassing, pathetic display of self-control and seemingly nonexistent willpower.
Exhausting your willpower is a process researchers call “ego depletion”, in which everything, positive and negative, feels more intensely to you because your brain has lost some ability to regulate emotions. Thus, you respond more strongly to everything while cravings, frustrations, and desires build. In the short term, willpower is a limited resource where your mounting restraint and discipline overtax valuable space in your brain, making it that much more difficult to resist other temptation later on in your day. Fortunately, not all hope is lost for the ones, like myself, to put the “power” back into our “willpower”. Improvements can be made by frequent and consistent exercises in self-control. Observant religious people are a good example of this, often scoring higher in self-discipline than others, perhaps with personal religious practices involving willpower. One study found that students who were asked to pay attention to their posture for a week, performed better on other willpower tasks (not pertaining to posture) than students who had not been actively exercising control all week.
Therefore, all these areas in your life that require some form of mental effort, will help build up and strengthen that mental muscle of self-control within you. The more you practice willpower and put it to the test, the more successful you will be in resisting temptation in the future.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I will be beginning my day with the ultimate willpower exercise of passing the pastry counter, full of non-vegan delicacies at my regular coffee shop, with a new motivation that will hopefully extinguish my lingering urges to jump across the counter and devour each and every one of those buttery pastries. Best of luck in your willpower pursuits!
People are quick to accuse vegans and vegetarians of having a superior attitude. There is a certain stereotype that exists, which paints vegans and vegetarians as being arrogantly passionate, judgmental, and self-righteous. It is an unfair representation and must be emphasized as such, for it breeds misinformation and resistance, thereby making meat and dairy consumers less apt to simply consider a different diet and lifestyle option. The truth of the matter is that meat and dairy consumers are equally, if not more, judgmental and adamant that their view is the correct one. This is what I came to discover whenever mentioning to my family and friends my thoughts to transition into becoming a vegan.
I was met with varying reactions, almost all of them negative in nature. Although primarily based out of concern and worry for my health, there was little support to be received. Ranging from lectures, debate, and doubts that I could go through with it. Complete with shaking heads, eye rolls, and sighs thrown in or at the very least, an eyebrow raise with a polite, pessimistic sentiment. A far cry from the open mind, acceptance, and respect the very same people claimed vegans and vegetarians lacked. The pendulum most certainly swings both ways.
I believe the image of the health-conscience, passionate vegan and vegetarian intimidates people in a particular way, which in turn may deter them from choosing that kind of lifestyle. From my own experience, the common thought that would cross my mind is that a vegan/vegetarian is surely going to tell me everything that I’m doing wrong and shame me and judge me for what I eat. And within that mind- frame, produced avoidance. People don’t want to be preached at or chided. They worry about the guilt that might ensue after a conversation. They dread appearing foolish, clueless, and ignorant. They simply don’t want to know the dirty details, rather being blissfully unaware of, quite literally, “how the sausage gets made”. Most people simply fear the unfamiliar and unknown.
It is important to recognize that people regard food in vastly different ways. It can be a taste-oriented comfort, a delicious and creative art, substances that your spouse or parent prepares and selects that’s placed in front of you, nutrients to feed your body-is-a-temple mantra, to mere fuel for the body and everything in between. Food can be savored slowly or devoured quickly, with differing degrees of apathy and distraction or deep purpose and intention. Diet is closely interwoven with lifestyle and becomes a sensitive topic for some, connecting on a deep, personal level, who they are and possibly sparking body or self-image issues. Having an open mind, tolerance of others’ opinions, and kind-hearted discussion and knowledge to offer is key to breaking this paradigm of casting vegans and vegetarians in this negative light. Not to say that the stereotype is vegans and vegetarians fault to fix, but it’s about time that reputation was proven false with respectful, calm debate on both sides of the aisle.
Thus, in order to stimulate knowledge and motivation in others, in the process of building to expand veganism and vegetarianism, I believe what would help in an impactful way, is for vegans and vegetarians to utilize a tactful approach when discussing diet and health to others. Personally, I was so relieved and thankful for my boyfriend’s fact-based and understanding method surrounding the subject with zero pressure and shaming involved. I’m so appreciative now, as well, for his advice and sympathy as I’m going through strong meat and dairy cravings presently. I know I would have been more reluctant to tackle this challenge and eventually make the decision to become vegan, if he hadn’t created such a kind and straightforward atmosphere. I understand the frustration vegans and vegetarians must feel about the sluggish pace of worldwide awareness and change, as well as the prejudice, exclusion, and judgment that they must face at times. The zeal you possess for your healthy vegan/vegetarian lifestyle is something you should be proud of and never apologize for. My advice, as a very recent converter to veganism, is to help educate others with compassion and tact if you wish to inspire and meaningfully change minds.
When I initially decided to transition into becoming a vegan, I don’t think I was fully aware of the magnitude of it. Having only followed a vegan diet for a little over a week now, I’m still nowhere near the point of seeing the deep impact it will have on my life and all the changes that will occur in my body and mind alike. It isn’t simply cutting out meat and dairy, it’s a whole new way of thinking, it’s a lifestyle you follow.
I went through different stages of thinking about the change to veganism. The impending move to live with a very health conscience, wise, and convincing boyfriend whom happened to be an excellent cook helped tremendously. It seemed only logical and convenient that I would adopt veganism so we could eat the same meals, have similar groceries. Why not? All I had to do was cut out meat and dairy… it seemed easy enough. I feared it seemed easy enough because perhaps I was looking at it as another somewhat short-term diet, with which I had tried eating better in the past and had never lasted too long with my easily breakable will power. This change was going to be forever and I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. Maybe I could cheat a little here and there I thought.
Then came watching a few videos that illuminated the harsh realities of the cruelty to animals all in the process of getting meat and dairy onto our plates. I felt like everything I had thought and known was completely false. I was aware of the harsh conditions that baby cows endured before becoming veal. From the youngest time I could remember, walking the grocery store aisles with my mom, I can still hear her saying, “No, not that steak, that’s veal, a baby cow that they treat badly. We don’t eat veal.” And so it had been and I hadn’t ever eaten veal and assumed veal was the “bad meat” that only insensitive jerks ate and all other meat was okay. The rest of the animals lived long, happy lives with large fields to roam with farmers who loved them and when they were very old and it was there time, they would humanely be killed with a tear in the farmer’s eye.
That’s how I had pictured it all my life.
How could I possibly be so naïve? I felt like an awful human being for having any part in it. I wasn’t the one butchering, but I was the one consuming, which is ultimately the reason we all these innocent animals were being killed. Watching those helpless animals squeal and cry before getting slaughtered was indescribably heartbreaking and I couldn’t bare the thought of all these creatures dying solely for my selfish consumption. What a waste it all was. A living creature with sensitivities, feelings, some sort of thoughts, a life created, just to be destroyed a short time later. You could see the cruelty in the farmers’ eyes and how they kicked and harmed the animals, like inanimate objects, not living creatures. It was a nightmare. I didn’t want a single piece of meat to pass through my lips ever again.
The next night, my family had pork chops for dinner. I looked down at my plate and probably for the first time really thought about what I was eating. It had always just been a pork chop, perfectly normal thing to eat and tasty to most of society’s eyes, but I was about to be eating a dead pig. A creature who I had recently watched been helplessly crying and squealing while hanging by its legs before being sliced to death. There was no getting around that now. I looked at my dog who was eagerly at my side begging for table scraps, and thinking what a mind she has. She outsmarts me to get her way, has her own motives, gets jealous, feels empathy, is in tune with humans and other animals’ emotions, curious, has all these complex feeling and emotions and a different bark and sound to try to communicate everything.
The fact that my brothers’ had told me swirling in my head, that pigs are actually smarter than domestic dogs. Guilt flooded over me. How could I treat this creature, this dog of mine, not only as a pet, but like a child, while consuming the other. It didn’t seem right or fair in the least bit. I thought about trying to go back to the labels, “pork chop….. pork chop….” sweep it under the rug, but there was no unseeing or forgetting that cruelty. At least not tonight I thought. I only ate the potatoes and vegetables on my plate and made some excuse about not being hungry for the pork chop.
Then I had a thought some time after, after a few days of abstaining from meat, what if that was just a handful of factory farms, far away from my New Hampshire grocery stores. What if the picture in my head of happy, long-living farm animals was still accurate for the most part? I had seen the small, quaint farms of my town and surrounding towns with some farmers I even knew personally. They would never treat their animals like the farmers’ in the videos. They kissed their animals, they even made their facebook profile pictures be ones with their animals. They took pride and great care in their hard work and were kind natured people. Surely, this is how it was, for the most part, with a few horrid outliers. The country, society, could not just stand by and let this kind of cruelty happen.
Mentioning this prompted another discussion and I was again reminded of my complete ignorance. The little farms of New Hampshire were the ones who were the exception. The little farms cannot possibly produce the huge unrelenting quantities of meat and dairy demanded throughout our country. Factory farms are the easiest and fastest way, albeit the cruelest and most harmful, to meet that demand, and just like with any aspect of life, America has seemingly focused more about the fastest, cheapest way to an end product, rather than the care, effort, and process of getting to that end product.
Any means necessary kind of approach, even if it’s dirty, cruel, or harmful. And as Americans, we’ve seemed to have a hard time with change and awareness and sometimes are all too likely to tend to stay blissfully ignorant.
It was unsurprising in a way. In another moment however I was shocked, stunned. I couldn’t believe my ignorance. It was a mix of emotions. I thought of all the delicious foods I had eaten that had meat in it and I found myself trying to come up with excuses to cling to, but nothing really came to mind. Perhaps I wanted to believe that happy farm life picture in my head and should’ve known better. At the same time it’s difficult to shake that happy picture in your head that you’ve grown up with all these years and that no one has really questioned, let alone penetrated, the truth of it.
Maybe it was where I grew up, the hearty, meat and seafood loving New England.
Maybe it was my family, the mindset that you follow and obey your parents and eat what’s in front of you and the guilt that ensues if you waste food.
Maybe it was my innocent trust in humanity and how the world worked. The happy picture was not completely shattered, probably because I didn’t want to fully accept the truth. But I was definitely looking at things in a whole new way. There was a lot of guilt in enjoying meat and dairy. It was going to be difficult still to cut them out completely. I was perhaps just as bad as the cruel factory farmer.
Inside the Nation’s First Vegetarian Public School
A high-performing elementary school is taking a revolutionary approach to how students eat.
May 11, 2014 |
Thursday is always vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, in the cafeteria at Public School 244 in Queens, the nation’s first non-charter public school to serve only vegetarian meals. The 428 pre-kindergartners through third graders lined up at the salad bar and catered bins of jasmine rice, three-bean chili and steamed plantains, with an apple and oatmeal raisin cookie for dessert. None of the children, who live in the surrounding Korean and Asian-American neighborhoods of Flushing, seemed to clamor for the more typical school fare of hot dogs or fried chicken nuggets on that March afternoon. “We don’t necessarily want to promote a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but you kind of get the message,” said one of the schools’ teachers, Christian Ledesma.
The idea to go meatless came about organically, so to speak, when teachers and staff at the 6-year old elementary school began paying attention to the lunches children were bringing from home. Eighty-six percent of the children are from Asian-American families, and most were toting vegetarian food in their lunch pails.
Principal Robert Groff, a former Teach For America corps member in the Bronx, co-founded the school around the idea of promoting a healthy lifestyle, which in turn bolsters academic excellence. It’s not about diet, Groff said, but about something broader. An early school partner was Fan4Kids, a nonprofit with corporate sponsorship that targets low-income elementary school children with lessons on good nutrition and activity.
The vegetarian emphasis in P.S. 244: The Active Learning Elementary School reflects what may be a growing trend outside city schools and across the country. Meat is becoming slightly less popular in the American diet in recent years. The Department of Agriculture reported that Americans consumed 12 percent less meat in 2012 than five years earlier. Forbes Magazine named high-end vegan food the number one food trend last year.
From 2009 to 2011, the percentage of vegetarian households rose to 5 percent, representing a 2 percent jump. Vegan diets doubled from 1 to 2.5 percent (equivalent to the number of people living in Los Angeles County). In addition, according to the a 2011 Harris Interactive Study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, an advocacy group, 17 percent of Americans consider themselves “flexitarian,” or those who elect a vegetarian diet for more than half of their meals.
Public schools for the most part have been slow to catch up. Still, in September last year, San Diego Unified School District adopted “Meatless Monday” in its elementary schools, when they serve plant-based meals to its kindergarten through fifth graders. Gary Petill is the director of the district’s food services, and said they jumped on the opportunity to educate young students about a plant-based diet. “We decided on K-5, because young children are learning lifelong eating habits,” Petill said. “We might get push-back in high school. With Meatless Monday, when the fifth-graders go to middle school, they may be more open to vegetarian options.”
In New York City, P.S. 244 is one of two public schools that serve vegetarian food only. The Peck Slip School M 343, located inside the former Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s (DOE) headquarters in Brooklyn, is also offering a vegetarian menu. The school, which opened in September 2013, has classes from pre-K through the first grade. It plans to expand up to the fifth grade.
On one of the vegan menu days at P.S. 244, Groff wore a striped button-up shirt and a blue tie, his brown curly hair neatly arranged with hair gel. In his office is a bookshelf stuffed with folders. One pile is dedicated to visiting parents and media, and includes an invitation to family dinner night and a calendar that provides the cafeteria menu for every day of the month. Each day includes an “eat your colors” section—students are encouraged to eat a variety of vegetables, including carrot sticks, cucumber salad, and Brooklyn baked beans.
The folder also includes the school’s progress report. P.S. 244, on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Colden Street, received top marks in 2013 on standardized math and reading tests; it ranked 11th in the state. A healthy lifestyle focus, Groff believes, is an important element. During its inaugural year in 2008, students approached one of their teachers with a campaign. “They came up to me and said, ‘Look, we’ve been reading the nutrition facts on this chocolate milk, and it has as much sugar and high fructose corn syrup as soda!” said Christian Ledesma, who also serves at the school’s health coordinator. He worked with two advocacy groups to replace the milk. “In my mind, the chocolate milk was gone the next day,” he said. “That’s how fast it seemed.”
The school has grown in popularity with the community since it opened. Over the past two years, P.S. 244 received over 400 applications per year to fill 125 kindergarten spots. This year, it received 650 applications.
Since many of the students come from Chinese, Indian, or Muslim backgrounds, they are accustomed to a predominantly vegetarian diet at home, said the school’s parent coordinator. Riva, a third-grade student at P.S. 244 who said she hasn’t gotten sick since becoming a student at P.S. 244, doesn’t see much of a stretch between what she eats at home and what she eats in the school’s cafeteria. “In China, they serve almost the same kind of food as here,” Riva said.
“The vast majority of parents are on board,” Groff added. “Some are in the mindset of, ‘My kid will only eat those certain things,’ but when kids see their friends eating things, when they’re immersed in it, they’ll try it.”
Adopting a vegetarian menu at P.S. 244 required the support of community and advocacy groups like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food. The non-profit introduces plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools. Amie Hamlin, the executive director of the organization, said having a vegetarian school in New York City was her idea. “I asked the school first, ‘Would you consider it?’ The whole purpose of that school is health and fitness—The Active Learning Elementary School.”
Hamlin recognizes that vegetarian diets are not always healthier, especially if they are cheese-based. “The reason P.S. 244 is a healthier menu is because half of the time, entrees are vegan,” she said. Acquiring accurate data on the nutritional value of school food is challenging, she said, because school surveys do not often ask the right questions. Asking if schools offer vegan or vegetarian options doesn’t provide much clarity.
Because all schools offer peanut butter and jelly, cheese sandwiches, or pizza, there are usually vegetarian and vegan options available. But if students select vegan options, Hamlin says, like brown rice, broccoli, and oranges, they are missing an essential component of a meal: the entrée. “The real question is, ‘Do you have a vegan hot entrée?’” Hamlin said. Diet, Hamlin believes, is important for student attendance, student concentration, and student behavior. “When kids eat a totally junky diet, they can’t concentrate as much,” she said.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the national program for school food, introduced new standards for healthier meals during the 2012-2013 school year. A year later, news outletsreported that 524 schools (about 1.5 percent of those registered for federal subsidies) were dropping out of the national program because of cost. In other words, the cost of providing healthier meals outweighed the demand. If schools chose to opt out, and didn’t follow the new standards, they wouldn’t be reimbursed for free or low-cost meals. But most of the schools did meet the new standards.
When P.S. 244 first turned vegetarian, it did cost them a little more, said Lalita Kovvuri, the school’s parent coordinator. “But introducing a vegetarian option city-wide might have gotten those costs down,” she said.
Hamlin said it doesn’t cost schools more to provide vegetarian meals. “If it did, schools wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said, in an email correspondence. “All they are doing is replacing meat with beans or tofu. Both cheap, and beans are available through the commodities program, which means essentially free.” She added that because cheese, fruits and vegetables are on all menus, there is no cost differential for those foods.
Cafeterias aren’t the only place where schools are trying to improve nutrition. At P.S. 216 in Brooklyn, Principal Arturo Toscanini has his kindergarten through fifth graders grow a vegetable each month and then prepare a meal from it. The program, the Edible Schoolyard NYC, is run by a non-profit of the same name in two schools in New York City—P.S. 216 and P.S. 7 Samuel Stern in Harlem. In Brooklyn, the program grew out of a classroom and moved into a greenhouse funded by the school district. The greenhouse sits behind the school building on a half-acre organic farm that used to be a parking lot.
Liza Engelberg, the program’s education director, looks over the farm with pride. Plants are sprouting in neat rows marked by labels on sticks. Even thyme and magnolia have been planted to ensure the students have access to a diverse garden. The greenhouse includes a roomy, colorful kitchen and an office where Engelberg and her staff—made up of four teachers—work.
Each of the school’s 600 children cooks one dish a month in the greenhouse kitchen. The recipes change with the season. In the winter, for instance, students made soups. Now that spring is approaching, they are switching to bean dip. “Our focus is on seasonal, locally grown food,” said Engelberg.
“Eighty-seven percent of the kids try every recipe because they are attached to it,” said Engelberg. And almost all of those who try the food end up liking it, she added.
The edible schoolyard has no relationship with the school’s cafeteria. The idea is to teach children about the impact of farming and food choices. The kids, Engelberg said, are now calling it their “food footprint.” But since the children only cook what they grow, the recipes are both vegetarian and vegan. “We are thinking of having chickens so we can add eggs,” said Engelberg. She doesn’t readily see how poultry or meat could be a part of the project, but she admits that as a staff, they “do have conversations about it.”
“We are not demonizing other kinds of food,” said Engelberg, referring to children eating poultry and meat at home. She said she realizes the challenges public schools face, especially when so many children live in temporary housing and have little or no access to healthy food. “We try and entice them to eat healthy as much as possible,” she said.
She also said the curriculum is aligned to the Common Core, the new education standards being introduced in schools across the country. By that she means that the process of planting, nurturing, picking and cooking a fruit, vegetable or herb teaches students useful lessons in science, social studies, math and even literacy. When they farm they learn the science of plants and seasons, Engelberg said, while cooking can be a mathematical process. They include history by teaching about the “three sisters,” a Native American tradition of growing maize, squash and certain kinds of beans. “And reading a recipe and understanding it is about literacy,” she added.
This idea of using food or diet to teach larger lessons about health, environment and treatment of animals is an essential part of schools’ attempts to introduce and promote vegetarian meals. Two private schools slated to open in the fall of 2015—Simple Awakenings New York and the Solutionary School—are centered on the idea of “humane education.” Although New York State Law stipulates that schools teach humane education, it seems to be restricted to the treatment of non-human animals.
These schools, however, define the term broadly. “They’ve got to get people away from thinking that humane education is just about furry animals,” said Bill Gladstone, educational consultant for the Solutionary School. The school’s curriculum is still being drafted and Gladstone said teachers will focus on “environmental stewardship, cultural exchange, human rights, and animal protection.”
Simple Awakenings, on the other hand, is based on the Sanskrit concept of Sattva, or mindfulness. Kala Estrella, the school’s 26-year-old founder, envisions an approach that includes a “vegan/vegetarian diet, child-centered, play-based activities, attention to environment, and a compassionate approach with others and with oneself.”
Science is also becoming increasingly accommodating of vegetarian and vegan choices. The American Dietetic Association reports studies that show vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, hypertension and even lower risk of contracting type 2 diabetes. The American Academy of Pediatrics is more cautious. It warns that nutritional balance is hardest when dairy products are absent altogether. Despite the intake of fruits, vegetables, cereals and legumes, they say strict vegetarians will likely need calcium supplements and pre-prepared food that is fortified with certain vitamins.
Dr. Sharon Akabas, the director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University, believes it is dangerous to automatically associate vegetarianism or veganism with healthy. “You can be a Twinkie vegetarian,” Akabas said. She insists that children should be visiting the pediatrician at least once a year, especially if they are following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
There is one main concern for growing children, Akabas says. Parents must ensure that the number of calories in their child’s diet is sufficient. “The challenges are greater with veganism, because you’ve removed the food groups with vitamin B12 and calcium, and there can be less iron,” Akabas said. But she isn’t too concerned about the menu at P.S. 244, which doesn’t offer junk food. “The worst worry is there’s some kind of deficiency going on that might compromise growth or ability to focus. In general, if a kid is getting enough calories that aren’t coming from junk food, you don’t have to micro-manage the choices,” she said.
Some New York City schools are paying attention to the research supporting a vegetarian diet. The Office of School Food told school-stories.org that they are receiving more and more inquiries from schools asking how the schools can “promote vegetarian choices on the menu.”
It’s unclear if more schools will follow the route taken by P.S. 244. But students at the Flushing school aren’t complaining about their school’s decision to promote fitness and a plant-based diet. “We exercise a lot here, and we always go outside when it’s sunny,” said Andy, an 8-year-old third grader at P.S. 244. He shared that his class’ running club—the Mighty Milers—receives 50 books for the school if his team achieves an average of one mile per student. “In other schools they get fake meat, they even sell candy,” he said, shaking his head. “They want you to pay money for that stuff. For sugar!”
After studying political science and Spanish at U.C. Berkeley, Annette Konoske-Graf moved to Miami, Florida, where she taught ninth and tenth-grade literature in Little Haiti. She is now at Columbia Journalism School.
Aparna Allrui is a freelance print and radio reporter. Originally from India, she is currently based in New York, finishing up a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University.
Im sitting in the RV, the exhaust fan is running in a vainglorious attempt to remove some of the smell of the kimchee vegan burger Im eating. All my food has been microwaved thus far, i dare not think about what is happening to may body….
The mountain today is epic. The snow is wind blown and coming in gales, waves, sheets as with rain. The crystals are so fine and precise, not a single one falling out of place.
Best snow of the season, of course, I’m here..
The game is on, NFL playoffs, Seahawks are playing, its a big deal, thats why I’m the 12th man.
Now for some vegan chili, Joanie, Pete’s wife, pete my buddy who’s a good snow boarder, his wife made us vegan chili, vegan shepherds pie and vegan chocolate cake, I’m in heaven, I don’t even care about the microwave radiation I’m bathing in!
A Few Days Later-
Im back at Pete’s house now, Im beat, I was boarding constantly, I have muscles that I didn’t know about, people at Stevens Mountain are so rad, the snow was EPIC and life is good.
We were on the mountain when the lights went out, night skiing, THAT was a crazy time, Pete and I decided to just go for it – RAD!
Such cool people, so very cool, ok, time to crash, Im beyond beat and tomorrow I fly to Hawaii…. =]
The mountain was beyond beautiful. Riding the lift, looking down on a sea of snowladen evergreens, snow that is constantly falling at varying speeds from lazy to blistering, literally falling in sheets like rain….
we went down the mountain during one of our runs at night and after a couple turns, the mountain lost power, so there we were, Pete and I, what to do…? We decided to keep on going, one of the best moments as it was far beyond surreal, I found magic In fact…. Again…
Im here, im chill, im blogging. Getting the tour of the mobile chalet from my boy Pete, who I grew up with in a manner of speaking, Im beyond stoked to be here, with him at Stevens Mountain Pass. We got two more epic bros comin up, we got powder falling right now, Pink Floyd wishing you were here and now Fugazi making me a Patient Boy. The beer is cold, my New Years resolution suspended fort he sake of memories. Seattle is an epic land to be sure, im beyond happy, Im in love with life right now, I feel as though I may have come through yet another epoch in my life. Getting here was an epic take, cancelled flights, running all around the Philly airport, getting first class on Alaskan, getting the ticket ripped up by angry Alaskan counter clerk, more running, Us Airways flight, rad conversation with Mr. perez and Theresa, vegan chili and shepherds brought to you by Pete’s rad wife joanie, life is rad.
Now time to ride, peace out n aloha=]